Too bad they don’t have a jersey for classiest man in the peloton
By Rupert Guinness, Of The Australian
They are a fickle lot, the French, when it comes to choosing their favorite rider in the Tour de France. They tried with Richard Virenque. But he was busted. For his involvement in the Festina drugs affair, that is. They placed faith in Christophe Moreau. But he broke it. Along with his self-confidence in a crash-filled first and second week.
Thank God, they must be saying, there is still Laurent Jalabert. Always has, they’ll say. Too bad though, always will, they can’t say. For Jaja will retire at the end of the year.
Of all the French stars who have raised and ripped apart French hearts and hopes in recent years, Jalabert has been the one soothing constant. Even if he were a Tour winner, the Panda (as many call him — well, his face looks like one, come to think of it) couldn’t be more popular than he is rightnow.
To be fair, he deserves every accolade, especially since announcing his retirement at a press conference on the rest day at Bordeaux two days ago. In an era when France has had little to celebrate in the Tour — from no overall winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 to no stage winner this year until stage 10 at Pau when Patrice Halgand won — Jalabert has been a blessing.
In the first week, Jalabert was unlucky not take the yellow jersey.
He was poised to take it from Armstrong after placing second, two seconds back in the prologue. On stage one in Luxembourg, Jalabert became leader on the road, but lost it as quickly when the Italian-Swiss rider Rubens Bertogliati upstaged him. Bertogliati’s stage- and yellow jersey-winning attack in the last kilometer instead saw Jalabert drop to second, three seconds down.
As if anything could get worse … you say. You bet it did. In the 67.5km stage 4 team time trial, in which ONCE beat US Postal to win, Jalabert’s CSC-Tiscali team was third at 46 seconds after a mistake-riddled race saw them lose one rider and suffer a radio breakdown.
On Saturday, Jalabert will ride out from the Pyrenees to Béziers with a celebratory stage win in his final Tour as elusive as was his bid for the yellow jersey. But all France is behind him. And as an added consolation, he will be wearing the red-and-white polka-dot jersey of King of the Mountains.
His two days spent on the attack in the Pyrénées would have converted into victory had he not been still highly placed overall. Even Armstrong conceded it was a tough break
As the Texan passed him with 3.5km to go on stage 11 to La Mongie, he gave Jalabert a quick glance that read “sorry“. Today, 9km from the finish at Plateau de Beille there was no time, or need, for that.
Armstrong later praised Jalabert who pedaled in 11:36 behind him.
Jalabert hopes the time loss — made deliberately once he was caught — will be the key to making sure the peloton opens its door wide the next time he attacks. As he no doubt will.
“He deserves to win a stage. But yesterday, as I explained to him, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano was dropped and we had no choice (but to go hard),” said Armstrong. “We are here to take the yellow jersey. In these first (mountains) days we have to ride as fast as possible until the classification is really set. I think he totally understands it.
“But I can’t get over (how) somebody who is going to retire is such a fighter. When most people say they are going to retire they ride at the back or have parties every night. They show up at the race saying: `Hey, how are you doing?’ They take it easy. But he has such an incredible mentality as a champion.
“He is a true fighter, a champion. He still has a few more months, but every day he is going to attack. That is what made him Laurent Jalabert for the last 10 or 12 years.”
Typically, Jalabert took it all in his stride today. He admitted later that the emotion he felt as he raced through the Pyrénées was “inexplicable.” He admitted the crowd carried him through with their cheers and that he was deeply touched by the words and gestures of congratulations from riders when he was caught.
If today was another for Armstrong to celebrate, it was also a day for France to celebrate Jalabert. The difference was never more poignant than before it all began in Lannemezan. As Armstrong hurriedly rushed back from the sign-on to the U.S. Postal Service team truck, there was great interest in the Texan. But it was not like the emotion that erupted a few minutes later.
When Jalabert made his way to the sign-on, the six-deep throng lining the rails erupted into a cacophony of French passion, hope and adoration. Just as it did from when Jalabert set off after 47km in pursuit of victory to when he reached the finish.
Fifty meters before crossing the line, the gesture by Frank Renier of pointing to Jalabert and applauding him with arms aloft set alight the French crowd’s cheer as if he had won. Then fittingly Renier (Bonjour) and Jérôme Pineau (Bonjour) and Bobby Julich (Telekom) — the two others in Jalabert’s company — stalled to allow him to cross first.
Perhaps the most suitable tribute came 30 minutes later when a member of the Garde Républicaine offered to take Jalabert down the climb to his team bus on his motorcycle. That offer, even a smiling and seemingly bewildered Jalabert could not refuse.
Did French rider Christophe Oriol (AG2R) read the VeloNews Web site Thursday night?
Two days ago, he was the Tour’s last-placed rider overall and promising to “do something” in the mountains. Yesterday before stage 11, we asked Oriol if emulating the stage-winning feat of another French lanterne rouge, Pierre Matignon in the 1969 Tour, was possible.
He laughed. Said it would be a dream and left us thinking nothing of it. Until that is, he instigated today’s big break and led the Tour up the Col de Menté at 56km. Over the top, Oriol was joined by Jalabert who encouraged him to dig and work together till the end. Too bad he couldn’t.
After finishing 24:08 after Armstrong and in a group of 15 riders, he admitted this time that his ambitions may have bee a tad high. But the effort was still worthwhile. It temporarily set him up to assist team leader Alexandre Botcharov when he joined the break.
And it proved his health is on the up after a four-crash first week. “To be in the front is always good, even if I was a bit short,” he said. “I’ll need a bit more luck next time.”