Last night Cheng Ji of the Giant-Shimano team went to sleep as the last-placed man in the Tour de France. He will spend today, the first rest day, still in last place, and wake up tomorrow and take the start line for stage 11 still in last.
Ji is the lanterne rouge, the nickname for the last man in the Tour – only in the world's greatest stage race can a guy stay in last place for long enough to for there be a folklore and a cult around the loser.
But wait a minute: are the last-placed men losers? In a Tour of 198 riders, only eight or 10 are aiming to win the yellow jersey… and maybe only three or four realistically have a chance. The other 190 or so men have different goals – winning the other jerseys, perhaps, or going for stage wins, or working for their team leader to achieve the team's goals.
Cheng Ji isn't a loser. He's the first ever Chinese rider in the Tour de France, a pioneer from a population of 1.35 billion bike-riding people. He's also one of the key domestiques for Marcel Kittel, an integral part of the well-oiled machine that has launched the German sprinter to his three sprint stage wins so far. So for Ji the General Classification does not matter at all. Often the lanternes rouges are domestiques but they can also be sprinters, whose heavy muscles weigh them down in the mountains, debutants whose time at the right end of the peloton may yet come, or even victims of accidents, struggling on with injuries.
In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s some riders would engage in a race to be last: the lanterne rouge position had become famous (or infamous), and because the fans loved the underdog so much he would get invited to the post-Tour criteriums, where he could double his salary over two or three weeks of evening racing.
These days, now that salaries are better and the post-Tour crit circuit has withered, riders don't pay the lanterne rouge the same regard. If they're in last place it's probably because they've had some bad luck, but they're determined to stay in the race, not to give up. They want to get to the end and join that select club of men who've finished the Tour de France.
Their experience of the race is very different from the leaders – who are protected by their team and often only see the empty tarmac ahead of them – and their stories can be funny, sad, absurd and inspiring. So as the peloton get going again tomorrow, think of the unsung heroes of the Tour, and give Cheng Ji a cheer as he diligently makes his way to Paris.