It is said that when the Tour de France races into Paris on its final stage that every rider is a winner. While the crowds that pack the Champs-Élysées have their eyes on the yellow jersey, the applause will ripple all the way down to the Lanterne Rouge, the last placed rider.
There are, of course, many Tours de France, but the race for the Lanterne Rouge remains unique. Although it rarely garners any headlines, there have been some great stories over the years.
There were the Flores brothers from Spain, Igor and Iker, who both took the honour in 2002 and 2005; then there were the unheralded battles between Frenchman Jimmy Casper and Belgian Win Vansevenant, who vied for last-place honours between 2001 and 2008. Casper also won a stage in the Tour, but Vansevenant is the all-time Lanterne Rouge record holder, winning the prize for three consecutive years in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Vansevenant, a key link in the Lotto lead-out train, also took last place seriously, and could even be seen sandbagging the final time trial to assure his place at the bottom of the Tour.
Few riders come into the Tour to race for last place and most years it is simply a certain destiny that falls on the shoulders of one rider, like it or not. When it comes to the race on the back end of the Tour, one person, Stéphane Bezault, has a front-row seat. Bezault is the driver of the Voiture Balai, or broom wagon.
“I have been the driver of the broom wagon since 2017. I did other things for the Tour before that, but once I had a chance to drive the broom wagon, I didn’t hesitate,” Bezault told Rouleur before the start of stage 19 of the 2023 Tour. “I really liked being behind the race. I immediately felt like I was helping the guys that were suffering, the guys that were far behind. I’ll pass them a bottle, give them something to eat or even chat with them a bit, whatever, I just try to help them along.”
In some cases Bezault actually serves as a sort of neutral sports director, as the teams will give him wheels, food and drink for their riders left behind.
“I see an entirely other Tour de France,” Bezault says. “I see the Tour de France from behind. I see the battle to just finish. Plenty of things happen behind the Tour.”
Bezault, the brother of former professional Laurent Bezault, was according to his own estimation, a modest amateur at best. But he has immense respect for every rider who has ever attempted to ride the Tour de France.
“You know some of these guys just give so much just to finish. It’s really impressive.”
It goes without saying that Bezault has seen things at the Tour that none of us ever will.
“I’ll never forget Fabio Jakobsen last year. He was really suffering and was quickly dropped in the mountains. On the last day in the Pyrenees, it just didn’t look like he was going to make it. On the foot of the final climb up to Peyragudes, his teammates had to go ahead because they didn’t want to all risk finishing outside of the time limit. But Fabio wouldn’t give up. He was really hurting but he gave everything. And at the summit, as he tried to make it up that last steep pitch to the altiport, I could see all of his teammates waiting on the line and cheering for him. We could see the seconds counting down. I came across the line just behind him, and I could see that he made the cut-off but just a couple of seconds. That was such an emotional moment.”
But not all riders make the cut. One of those riders last year was Jakobsen’s teammate and key lead-out rider Michael Mørkøv. Southern France was cooking under an intense heat-wave and Morkov lost contact with the peloton on the stage to Carcassonne.
“It was super hot that day and Michael was just totally empty. His sports director had to go up the road and I stayed with him, giving him bottles and pouring water over him. And each time he said thank you. He knew he wasn’t going to finish in the time cut, but he wanted to finish the stage at least. I’ll never forget, at the finish, he was being interviewed, and he stopped one more time to shake my hand and thank me. He was completely empty but he made an effort to thank me one more time.”
Interestingly Mørkøv and Jakobsen returned to the Tour this year, but their fates were different. Jakobsen crashed heavily in the finale of stage four, and struggled for days before dropping out. Mørkøv lost immeasurable amounts of time pacing Jakobsen to the finish on each subsequent stage, and his own place in the Tour standings quickly plummeted. As a result he finished this year’s Tour with Lanterne Rouge honours. But he can be satisfied knowing simply that he is one of the 150 finishers of the 2023 Tour.
For years the broom wagon actually had a broom attached to the front of it. But former Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc removed it as he felt it was disrespectful of the riders. In addition, fewer and fewer riders actually climb into the broom wagon when they do abandon, opting for the comforts of their team car whenever possible.
But Bezault remembers at least one day when the broom wagon was overflowing. “It was back in 2018, only my second year driving the broom wagon,” Bezault recounts. “It was on the stage to l’Alpe d’Huez and the race was all split up. Suddenly as I came up to the summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer, I see André Greipel, Fernando Gaviria and a group of sprinters stopped by the side of the road. They were waiting for me! They knew they would never make it before the time limit, so they just stopped and waited for me. It wasn’t easy actually, because I had to fit in all their bikes and everything. But it was a moment I will never forget. They knew their Tour was over, but they were all just joking and making the best of the situation. What a day that was! When it comes to driving the broom wagon, it doesn’t get much better than that.”