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Tour de France 2015: Lanterne Rouge – stage 20

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Photographs: BrakeThrough Media

To be last on any stage in the Tour de France is to bring honour, rather than shame, given the mental and physical resources required merely to keep going in a race as hard as this.
To finish last on the signature climb of the race, however, tackled after nearly three full weeks of racing, requires a special resolve.
Step forwards Matthias Brändle (IAM Cycling). The Austrian is no stranger to glory: a former Hour Record holder and responsible for back-to-back stage wins at last year’s Tour of Britain, he knows how to get the job done.

The parameters of success change drastically, however, when the road points unremittingly skywards, unfolding in a seemingly unending sequence of hairpin bends. Brändle was the last man home on l’Alpe d’Huez, and chapeau to him for that.
He was not without company. Brändle limped across the line with the same time as 26 others, a shade under 24 minutes after Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) had gladdened French hearts with a victory of real panache.
For the peloton’s 1s and sprinters, a ticket to the autobus was always a more likely requirement than a fresh jersey for the podium. Brändle’s accomplices included Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep), winner of the flat sixth stage in what now seems like another lifetime, and two other stars of the Spring: Tour of Flanders champion Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin).
Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE) might be considered the most significant member of the l’Alpe d’Huez grupetto, however. A regular star of this column, Matthews was horribly injured in the pile-up that marred stage three, but has ridden on, and will roll into Paris today, finally free of bandages.
His recovery has come at a cost: he is no longer the last man on GC. The official Lanterne Rouge is Sébastien Chavanel, now seemingly in a different race to leader Chris Froome (Team Sky). Nearly five hours separate them, but both will ride into the French capital with a mixture of relief and elation.
Like Matthews, Chavanel has starred in our Lanterne Rouge column already (for the first time, after a bludgeoning tenth stage), and looks set even to make a final apperance: he would need to make up more than eight minutes on Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEDGE) to avoid finishing 160th and last. Not that he would want to, one suspects. The Lanterne Rouge confers status in its own way: the rider who refused to quit, despite the enormity of a 3,360km bike race.

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