The American rider may have come last in the Tour de France but his grit and persistence in carrying on after a dreadful first-stage crash made it a triumph of sporting endeavour

You might not instantly recognise Lawson Craddock’s name, but an image of his face after a crash on the first stage of the Tour de France went viral: his left eye smashed up, a thick curd of blood spread along his cheeks, the grimace that of a cavalryman who fears his battle is done. Only it wasn’t. Despite also fracturing his scapula, he soldiered on for three more weeks. And, when he crossed the finish line in Paris last week, he had somehow become the most unlikeliest of history makers.

Most sport is binary. We talk about winners and losers, and not much in between. But Craddock’s travails in becoming the first rider in the Tour’s 115-year existence to occupy last position during all 21 stages of the race were a sharp reminder that there is glory in struggle, and savage defeat. During the Tour’s final week I saw him before the start of some stages. Often he clambered on to his bike with all the grace of an arthritic attempting ballet for the first time. Yet somehow he survived.

True, the American eventually finished 4hr 34min behind the yellow jersey winner, Geraint Thomas. But how many of us could have ridden more than 3,000km in intense pain without resisting the urge to shake our heads at the team car to end the suffering? And it wasn’t like he was going that slowly, either: the gap to Thomas was tiny compared with Arsène Millochau, the last-place finisher in 1903, who crossed the line 64hr 57min 8sec behind the race’s first winner, Maurice Garin.

It also meant Craddock claimed an honour of sorts: the Lanterne Rouge , an unofficial survivor’s badge for the last-placed finisher in the Tour. As the author Max Leonard notes in his excellent book on the subject, the prevailing wisdom is that the term was inspired by the red lantern that used to hang on a train’s final carriage – its presence indicated to guards that no carriage had decoupled along the way and the line behind was clear.

For much of the race Craddock feared he would be permanently decoupled from the peloton. When I spoke to him a couple of days ago, he admitted there were several bad moments, particularly when his body took “a beating” on the cobblestones in the Roubaix stage. “I had a lot of muscles in a lot of different places that I didn’t even know were there until they started hurting so much,” he said. “It took me days to recover.”

Then came the challenge of the Alps and Pyrenees, with Craddock struggling because he was unable to use his shoulders to generate as much power over the steepest climbs. “A few of the stages I was pretty down,” he said. “But you can sit there and dwell on how hard it is, and how rough you have it, or you can focus on the fact you are racing the Tour de France.”

What made Craddock’s feat even more impressive was that he took nothing stronger than ibuprofen and paracetamol to kill the pain. Partly that is because his team, EF Education First, is a member of Mouvement pour un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC) – which prohibits Therapeutic Use Exemptions and the use of powerful painkillers such as tramadol.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable using such things even if we weren’t in the MPCC,” he says. “I had to take tramadol before after I crashed hard in Australia and spent a few days in hospital, and I couldn’t even function. Having that experience, I don’t know how anyone can race on a painkiller that strong.”

Instead he relied on a battalion of doctors, chiropractors, physiotherapists and massage therapists to get him through each stage, although he struggled to sleep (a Whoop fitness tracker on his wrist showed how little rest he was getting, as well as the fact his resting heart rate – a good indicator of rest and recovery – was consistently going up).

Yet he refused to quit. Looking back, he says it was partly down to having the right mindset – and also his decision, after his crash on the first day, to set up a GoFundMe page to help the Alkek Velodrome in Houston, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey. “I grew up racing in that velodrome,” he told me. “So I wanted to give something back. It made all the suffering worth it.” It certainly has. So far the donations stand at more than $250,000.

Surprisingly, Craddock is not the first cyclist to benefit from the Lanterne Rouge. In his book Leonard points out that during the 1950s the rider who finished last in the Tour would often be invited to dozens of well-paid criteriums in towns and cities in the fortnight after the race. As he notes: “For a journeyman pro on a low wage and with uncertain job prospects, the idea of a well-paid invitation to a two-week party was very alluring.” Abdel‑Kader Zaaf, the Lanterne Rouge in 1951, claimed to have made 35,000 francs at criteriums when his daily wage was seven-10 francs.

Those days are long gone, but Craddock’s performance reminds us that there is an honour in the struggle. That, as the founder of the Olympic movement, Baron de Coubertin, once put it: “The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Incidentally, Craddock was back on his bike on Saturday, riding the Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian. This time he had a DNF – did not finish – next to his name. But after his travails over the past three weeks it was surely a miracle he was there at all.