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Getting rid of the lantern

Life on the Tour de France was looking pretty grim for the little known French rider Christophe Oriol as he slowly rolled out with the bunch for today's first mountain stage in the Pyrénées. He had every right to feel a little down. Four crashes in the first week. A seriously bashed right hand, bruised and cut legs. And plenty of time off the back. Plenty. “I hurt my hand, legs and coccyx. Then I had a lot of trouble just following the pack. I simply haven't had any force,” explained Oriol with a smile of disbelief. Little wonder. So much time did he lose, that by today's 12th stage from

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By Rupert Guinness, Of The Australian

Life on the Tour de France was looking pretty grim for the little known French rider Christophe Oriol as he slowly rolled out with the bunch for today’s first mountain stage in the Pyrénées.

He had every right to feel a little down. Four crashes in the first week. A seriously bashed right hand, bruised and cut legs. And plenty of time off the back. Plenty.

“I hurt my hand, legs and coccyx. Then I had a lot of trouble just following the pack. I simply haven’t had any force,” explained Oriol with a smile of disbelief.

Little wonder. So much time did he lose, that by today’s 12th stage from Pau to the ski station at La Mongie, he was last overall, 40 minutes and 50 seconds behind ONCE’s Spain’s Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano.

A fifth-year pro and in his third Tour, the Ag2R rider was seriously wondering if he would even complete today’s 158km journey. Praying for a quiet race, he was. A quiet race and, for once, an even break.

At 29 years of age, the native of the Beaujolais region where the Tour passes next week, Oriol may not be a Tour contender. Heck, even he would tell you that he probably never was one. But he is no schmuck. Oriol has two wins to his career; stage wins in 1999 Giro Delfinito when his team was sponsored by Casino and in last year’s Tour de L’Ain. He, like anyone else in the peloton, also has ambition and dreams.

Still, it’s on record that Oriol did succumb to a slight lack of self-esteem last year. But don’t we all from time to time? For him it came when he joined French favorite Jacky Durand (who else?) in a 150km attack in the first stage to Boulogne.

“I wondered for a moment if I ever existed. All I heard were fans screaming ‘Allez Durand … Allez Durand’ …. for 150km!,” he said afterwards.

Today, too, Oriol could have felt as unrecognized as he rode out from Pau. To be sure, a few friends came to wish him well. An old man asked for a photo with him, as did a kid or two.

But getting a little time to chat with Oriol was a lot easier than even getting a glimpse of Lance Armstrong who was hidden away in the U.S. Postal team van 200 meters away. No complaints here….

In Pau, Oriol admitted about his fear about the stage ahead: That he may miss the time limit; that he might not be able to ride as hard as he would normally because of his injuries.

“The first mountain stage… you are always afraid of it,” he said. “And I was hurt during the first week. I had four crashes. It was very hard, that is why I am afraid.”

Goals? Well, just finishing sounded like a big one. But as he reflected a little deeper, Oriol admitted he was keen to shed his placing as the lanterne rouge.

As glamorous as being the last placed rider might seem to some, Oriol said he planned to show he is worth more than that further down the Tour’s long track to Paris.

“I am a bit worried today and hope I can finish the stage. Why not climb up a little bit on the overall classification to so not to be last,” he said, his spirits seemingly lifting as he spoke.

So long as he could recover from his wounds, he said he felt that there are still plenty of opportunities ahead to help him haul himself back up to the middle order.

“Since yesterday, it has gone better, but I have to recover every day,” he said. “For one or two more days, I will stick with the groupetto along all the sprinters. Then after if the health is better I will try and do something in the Alps.”

That something would include Oriol helping his team leaders in the Alps next week, he explained. More than anything, he said, he wants to help Russian Alexandre Botcharov and Spaniard Inigo Chaurreau make their own marks.

“Normally I prefer the mountains to the flat. But now that I am not 100-percent I am not so sure about my chances,” he added.

I couldn’t help but raise the barrier a bit higher. What about repeating the feat of Frenchman Pierre Matignan in the 1969 Tour, which marked the first of Eddy Merckx’s five overall victories?

Oriol laughed when he heard how Matignan, then also placed last overall, attacked on the 20th stage from Brives to Pau and won with a margin of 1:23 over the field and the great Merckx.

Of course, Matignan was given every chance. The stage the slowest of that Tour, the average speed being at the snail’s pace of 28.983kph.

“Now that would be a dream,” Oriol laughed. “But I don’t think it is very realistic. But, then again… why not, if the legs are good?”

Tonight, as the sun slips behind La Mongie and the Tour entourage begins its long trip down into the valley to sleep for another night, it may be worth remembering Oriol’s words.

He did finish the stage in 106th place, as part of a group of 32 riders that included Abraham Olano, some 20:19 behind the victorious Lance Armstrong. Oriol also got to start his long haul up the classifications, moving from last to 171st among 177 survivors. More importantly, he got to ride another day and to lend a hand to Botcharov and Chaurreau. His teammates now sit in 54th (at 15:30) and 67th (at 23:24) respectively.