Last in the Tour de France, first in cycling hearts

Hoar, right, gets a paper lantern from Henri Sitek, who finished second to last, on the final day of the Tour de France in 1955. Hoar, who now lives in Mill Bay, B.C., was a 23-year-old Briton when he completed the 1955 Tour de France, earning the Lanterne Rouge as the last man across the line.

Plenty of excitement this week about Victoria's Ryder Hesjedal, only the fourth Canadian to ride the Tour de France.

But not many know that just up the highway in Mill Bay lives a fifth Tour veteran, one who enjoys pop-icon status among hard-core European cycling junkies.

Tony Hoar was a 23-year-old Briton when he completed the 1955 Tour de France, earning the Lanterne Rouge as the last man across the line.

The Lanterne Rouge, named for the red light that used to swing from the back of a railway caboose, is an unofficial but deeply entrenched cycling tradition, a celebration of those who gut it out, refuse to quit. Recipients earn a bit of a cult following.

"This is the first year I haven't been approached by the BBC, anybody in Europe, about the Tour," Hoar says. He won plenty of races in his day, had top finishes in the tours of Britain, Ireland, Egypt and Holland, and competed in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, but it was that 1955 Tour de France finish that people remember. "More people know who won the Lanterne Rouge than who came second."

He says this while giving a tour of his sprawling Mill Bay workshop. It looks like a meth head's rec room, a confusion of bikes, bike parts, shopping carts, lengths of steel tubing .... This is how Vancouver Island knows him best, as the engineering wizard behind Tony's Trailers, noted for designing and building everything from Rick Hansen's racing wheelchair to carts for the homeless.

At 78, he remains a big man, still vigorous, still excited about his inventions (check 'em out at tonystrailers.com). He continues to ride his bike -- he only gave up racing masters' events three years ago.

Hoar follows the Tour de France in print, but doesn't own a television. To him, the sport changed when the riders began wearing radios. In the old days, cyclists had little idea where their competitors were once they were out of sight; they just rode like hell, hoping to stay ahead of, or catch up to, the others. Radios let riders know how much time they have to make up, let them time their surges to the second. "To me, it spoils it."

There were other differences in his day. Riders didn't wear helmets. Weren't allowed to accept food or water from support vehicles, either. Passing cars was tricky on mountain roads without guard rails. It wasn't uncommon to pedal more than 300 kilometres a day. Hoar got a bit too close to a motorcycle in a tunnel during his Tour de France, hit the gravel and crashed while doing 100 km/h. "I slid a long way."

Not that the Tour is any easier today. "It is just as tough now," Hoar hastens to add.

Yes, but it was a beast then, too. Just two members of Hoar's 10-man team completed the 3,035-kilometre race in 1955. In fact, Hoar and Brian Robinson ("He's still around, just had a bad crash") that year became the first two Brits to ever finish the event. Hoar might have been the 69th, and last, rider into Paris, his aggregate time six hours behind the leader, but that was out of a starting field of 120.

Each year, dozens of Tour de France riders drop away due to injury, illness, exhaustion or an inability to finish within prescribed time limits. Simple survival is an accomplishment, which is why the Lanterne Rouge is such a big deal, honouring the one rider who has endured more pain, more time in the saddle, than anyone else.

"Just to arrive in Paris ... it's like getting to the top of Everest, on some level," says filmmaker Nigel Dick, on the phone from Los Angeles.

Dick has directed more than 300 music videos -- everything from Guns N' Roses' Welcome To The Jungle to Britney Spears' Baby One More Time -- but is also a self-described cycling nut who is working on a documentary film called In Search of the Lanterne Rouge. Few realize how taxing the Tour is, how hard it is for a cyclist to hang on just long enough to cross the finish line, says Dick, who knows both Hoar and Hesjedal (who, oddly enough, have never met).

Certainly the Lanterne Rouge notoriety helped Hoar back in 1955. "I got all sorts of contracts after that race," he says. "It really caught the French imagination." He raced in Paris the day after the Tour de France, and competed in five events in seven days in Belgium.

Funny thing, though: Hoar himself had never heard of the Lanterne Rouge when he lined up for the Tour de France.

No escaping the legend now. As the 78-year-old spends his days building trailers, cutting steel, welding joints, always inventing something new, the cycling junkies still won't let him forget about his refusal to quit.

by Jack Knox, Times Colonist newspaper, 22nd July 2010.

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