For the last 13 years, Thomas Voeckler has entertained Tour de France fans with his contorted facial expressions and gritty racing style. Throughout his career he attempted long-range breakaways that often seemed foolhardy; on multiple occasions he turned these huge efforts into victory. Along the way he wore the race’s maillot jaune for 20 total stages. He became a fan favorite in France and abroad.
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Voeckler was born in Alsace, in France’s northeast, and was raised in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. He was tutored as a cyclist in the Vendée, on France’s west-central Atlantic coast.
His story as a cycling star began July 8, 2004, on the fifth stage of that year’s Tour de France. Soon after the start in Amiens, he jumped into a breakaway with Sandy Casar, Jakob Piil, and Stuart O’Grady. The latter ended up victorious in Chartres while Voeckler claimed the yellow jersey. It was the moment France became aware of the Brioches La Boulangère rider’s boyish face. He reveled in the Tour’s yellow leader’s jersey for 10 days, holding off Lance Armstrong on the course’s hardest days, before finally ceding the lead in the Alps. It was then that his boss, Jean-René Bernaudeau, promised: “Thomas is going to have a wonderful career, just you wait and see!”
Those 10 days in yellow provided the foundation for his career; Voeckler turned out to be a masterful racer, a fierce competitor, and a canny athlete who knew just how to keep the press and the public entertained. For 13 years, Voeckler has built an enviable palmarès, including two French titles, the Grand Prix of Québec and of Plouay, stages of Paris-Nice, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Tour of the Basque Country. But it has been at the Tour de France where he has pulled off his most memorable exploits.
After his 2004 epic, he waited five years before finally claiming a first stage with a solo win in Perpignan. The best was still yet to come. He took a stage victory with the French national champion’s jersey on his back in Bagnères-de-Luchon. Voeckler then added two more in 2012, one in that same Pyrenean town and the other at Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.
While his four stage victories have immense value in a sporting sense, it was his second 10-day spell in the yellow jersey in 2011 that shattered all expectations. He again formed part of a successful breakaway, this time finishing in the Cantal. Just as he did in 2004, Voeckler repeated his belief that he couldn’t compete for the overall classification.
He was equally convinced, though, that the dream of winning the Tour and pulling off the most beautiful coups — and finally offering the home nation a victor to succeed Bernard Hinault — was within his reach. He was thwarted by one climb, the Galibier. This was the scene of a magnificent battle unleashed by Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans. Eventually, it shattered the Frenchman’s dream, and Evans took the overall victory. Millions of fans shared in his sadness when he missed a podium finish in Paris by a single place.
Nevertheless, Voeckler became a star. He confirmed his status by claiming the polka-dot jersey in dashing style in 2012. He finally savored the pride that comes with standing on the final podium on the Champs-Élysées.
At the age of 38, having completed 14 Tours de France, Voeckler is bringing an end to the romance he has shared with the French people. Faithful to his understanding of his place in the sport, he has no intentions of taking on a starring role during his farewell race. “I’d like it to work out well for the team,” he says. “My teammate Bryan Coquard deserves to bag a stage, and that would be a victory for me by proxy. I want to enjoy a wonderful Tour and I won’t hide the fact that I’d also like it if I could find a single moment to show my colors. That said, I wouldn’t be at all disappointed to ride the Tour as a team captain, as a teammate, and to finish in Paris after three beautiful weeks.”