By James Raia

The Honor Of Being Last In The Tour de France

(This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee on July 15, 2005. It was revised on July 12, 2007.)

The French sporting public likes compatriot champions. They also cheer for any countrymen in the Tour de France — even if he has no chance of winning but displays perseverance.

A French rider hasn’t claimed the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985, so sometimes fans resort to etching favorite former riders’ names in chalk on race roads.

On other occasions, fans wave huge handmade signs on mountaintops for retired French riders as if their ghosts are still in the race.

Tour de FranceWith nearly equal fervor, enthusiasts who camp for days in the Alps and Pyrenees to watch Tour de France riders pass in a flash, appreciate the underdog.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the tradition of the lanterne rouge or red lantern. It’s the honor given to the rider who finishes in last place in the overall Tour de France standings.

Named after the red lantern on the caboose of a train, the lanterne rouge honor began in the first Tour de France in 1903.

It’s never been an official designation, but the last-place cyclist receives his share of admiration.

In recent years, Tour organizers have discouraged any publicity about the red lantern because riders fervently began to abuse its original intention.

Since the second-to-last rider in the final standings’ wouldn’t earn anything for his status, back-of-the-back riders took crafty measures to finish last. They’d hide behind buildings, coast along routes or feign injury in order to be last.

The last rider doesn’t receive prize money for his finish, either. But in yesteryear, it was common for lanterne rouge honorees to receive sizable appearance fees to compete in post-Tour appearance criteriums, the fast-paced races on short, enclosed courses throughout Europe.

“It adds nothing,” Jean Marie Leblanc, the now-retired Tour de France race director said of the red lantern designation. “Today it is part of the lore of the Tour de France, but it no longer exists officially or unofficially.”

Yet the red lantern is still a revered Tour accomplishment.

As the race advances into the Alps and Pyrenees and the across wind-whipped countryside, riders at the bottom of the overall standings face a difficult challenge.

Should they give up and hope for a better race next time or push themselves to an extreme to remain within the varying time limits of each subsequent stage with a goal of finishing last?

Tour de FranceIn some instances, riders can still receive appearance money to ride in post-Tour criteriums.

“I had a Belgium teammate and he was the last (rider in the Tour), but he didn’t get anything,” said Belgian rider Mario Aerts said during the 2005 Tour de France. “But maybe he would have if he were a French guy.”

French rider Jimmy Casper, a veteran Tour de France rider who also won more than two-dozen races in his career, captured the lanterne rouge honor twice. On the final day of the race in Paris, Casper has capitalized on his status and carried a small red lantern for the purpose of seeking publicity and post-Tour business opportunities.

A rider is also the current red latern in this year’s Tour de France. Still riding in the first week of the race, Geoffrey Lequatre of Cofidis was more than 44 minutes behind race leader Fabian Cancellara.

And the field had yet to even encounter and of the race’s seriously difficult mountain passes in the Alps or Pyrenees.

Some Tour de France riders would rather not hear or discuss the red lantern.

“I don’t care to think about that,” said Italian rider Gianluca Bortolami. “There are always plenty of guys behind me.”

Michael Boogerd, the Dutch rider and several-time Tour stage winner, commented he has little time for such trivial concern. He’d rather concern himself trying to compete against riders vying for the overall title.

Conversely, Spanish rider Iker Flores had plenty of concern. He was the Tour’s lanterne rouge for several days during the 2005 race.

Riding on the Euskaltel team comprised of Basque cyclists, Flores entered the second race weekend trailing race leader Lance Armstrong by 2 hours, 18 minutes and 53 seconds.

With the continuing difficult climbs of the Pyrenees looming, Flores was nearly 6 1/2 minutes behind the next-to-last rider. And while he retained his lanterne rouge status, Flores achieved increased fan support.

Throngs of Basque fans raucously the rider and his countrymen as they faced the challenges of the Pyrenees. The Basque are almost as passionate about the Tour de France as the French, whether their riders are in first or last place.

Chad Gerlach: Former Pro Cyclist, Lance Armstrong Teammate, Subject Of Pending A&E Network Program, Intervention

Chad Gerlach once climbed mountains with the best cyclists in the world and rode as a teammate of Lance Armstrong. Gerlach’s athletic acclaim is long gone, but he’s about return to a national spotlight no one seeks.

The winner of nearly 100 career races will be the subject beginning Monday night, June 16 on the Arts & Entertainment Network program, Intervention.

The show will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Eastern Time and again Tuesday, June 17 at 1 a.m. Eastern Time.

The program is exactly what its name implies, a television show that serves as intervention of someone in the spiral of drug and or alcohol abuse.

Gerlach, 34, who was raised in West Sacramento but now lives in a recovery facility in Auburn, Calif., left cycling in 2002 and lived for five years homeless and in despair in downtown Sacramento.

Few doubted Gerlach had the talent for a successful career at the top level of the sport. He never rode in a grand tour like the Tour de France, but his nine-year pro career took him around the globe.

He won regional events like the Nevada City Classic and he won stages in diverse events like the Tour of China and Tour of Langkawi. He was a U.S. Postal Service teammate of Armstrong in 1996, but was dismissed for “personality conflicts.” Gerlach also rode with high-budget Italian squads and second-tier U.S.-based squads. Many of his coaches gave up, called the talented rider uncoachable.

But throughout his youth soccer tenure and as pro cyclist Gerlach always found difficulty. His tale nts were often overshadowed by an easily triggered temper.

According to the A&E; Network’s description of the pending show, Gerlach was sent to juvenile hall as a teenager for a felony arrest.

But at age 15, Gerlach’s father introduced his son to cycling. The young Gerlach advanced through junior programs and then onto the Olympic development program in Colorado with riders like Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner; Tyler Hamilton, the reigning Olympic time trial gold medalist; and many time Tour de France finisher Bobby Julich, the long-time veteran now in his last pro season.

Gerlach had superior overall skills. He could climb with many of the sport’s best and held his own in time trials and sprints. But Gerlach was often an individual in a team sport. He had a temper and that, in part, led to his nomadic journey. He rode for nearly a dozen teams in a nine-year pro career that ended in 2002 with the Sierra Nevada squad based in Northern California.

In his final season, Gerlach finished 10th in a rich one-day circuit race in New York that also included Armstrong as its marquee attraction.

Gerlach’s erratic temper was well-known. He once punched Lance Armstrong at the Olympic training camp. And by the time he left cycling, he’d been dismissed by nearly everyone in the sport.

“It’s just amazing,” said Chad’s father Peter Gerlach. “Chad was out there for five years. He was smart to get by on the streets. He had a broken ankle and was stabbed a couple of times, but he survived.”

Gerlach’s eventual intervention occurred via a friend, who had watched an episode of the show, now in its fourth season, and contacted its producers. Gerlach’s episode, simply called “Chad,” was filmed during more than a week in downtown Sacramento last February.

Members of Gerlach’s family and several pro cyclists are also featured in the program.

Gerlach’s father often accompanied his son to races, and some observers felt the elder Gerlach pushed his son too hard to succeed.

“I enabled my son, yes,” said the emotional elder Gerlach. “Chad was diagnosed at age four for five with ADD or ADHD; he’s just always had this tremendous energy. But I had finally given up; he’s as strong-headed as anyone on my side of the family.”

Not long after his departure from the sport, Gerlach was living on Sacramento streets, often in back alleys behind gas stations and seedy buildings. He panhandled, turned to drugs and resisted communication and repeated attempts at help from his family. The younger Gerlach sold his cycling equipment for money; his father kept his son’s medals is a shoebox.

In recent times, Gerlach has visited Sacramento-area bike shops and he’s reacquainted with area cyclists who are now taking the troubled cyclist on Northern California training rides. Via the assistance of a former girlfriend, Gerlach, who attended Rio Americano High School and has a GED certificate, has taken courses and plans to enroll in Sierra Junior College in Rocklin, Calif., this fall.