Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Birthday Wim - Blow out the lantern and make a wish

What? Never hear of Wim Vansevenant, maybe the greatest you and me of Tour de France history?

In the 96 runnings of the Tour de France there have been 511 team and 4,566 riders compete in what most of the sporting world considers the greatest and most difficult outdoor sporting event on the face of the Earth. Cast on the world’s largest playing field, the country of France.

Each year we celebrate the winner, the maillot jaune, the rider clad in yellow. And each year someone must be last, most pedal home unknown, but they by no means suffer the least. In the Tour, from the very beginning, there has been recognition for the last of these great sufferers, a rider who against all odds suffered and survived, for him, is awarded the Lanterne Rouge.

Lanterne Rouge is the French phrase, which translates to "red lantern," is used to describe the racer who finishes dead last in the overall standings when the peloton reaches Paris. (The terminology is borrowed from railway jargon for the archaic practice of hanging a red light on the caboose of trains, which assured station operators that no cars had come uncoupled.) The "winner" of the Lanterne Rouge are most like us – neither hero nor villain – simply the ones who tried, who struggled, and who, as the great French journalist Albert Londres wrote, rode with conviction and perseverance the “Tour de Souffrance”.

Today is the birthday of the greatest of these Lanterne Rouges, Belgian pro cyclist Wim Vansevenant. Wim accomplished a feat even more remarkable in many ways than the seven wins of Lance Armstrong or the seven King of the Mountains by Richard Veronique, he is the only Tour rider to ever have ridden into Paris with the Lanterne Rouge "hung" from his saddle three times - three consecutive times!

Call it what you like fate, luck, stubbornness, providence, maybe even stupidity, all have played a role, but Wim survived. He outlasted those who abandoned the Tour through illness, injury or simple exhaustion; those who were eliminated for failing to finish within each day's time cut-off and were unceremoniously forced to withdraw; and those who were banned or withdrew in disgrace for cheating (doping). Over the years about 20% of the riders plummet from the peloton. In other words, our Birthday Boy didn't simply coast to last place; Wim worked for it, he fought for it! And for that he is a cycling hero!

I doubt I shall ever enter another race, struggle in the peloton, cling on for dear life, even, god forbid, get dropped, without thinking of you. Thanks!

Happy Birthday Wim!

No comments:

Post a Comment