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Tour de France

Analysis: Voigt and Voeckler lead the populist puncheurs

It is difficult to imagine a breakaway more popular than the one that contested the finish of Wednesday’s stage 10

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It is difficult to imagine a breakaway more popular with the cycling cognoscenti than the one that contested the finish of Wednesday’s stage 10 to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.

What started as a 25-man move was gradually winnowed down, first by the passing of the sprint point at Béon that was the raison d’être for the presence of riders like Peter Sagan, Matt Goss, and Yauheni Hutarovich, and then by the fearsome 12-percent slopes of the 17km Col du Grand Colombier. Once the Colombier did its work, what remained was a five-man move consisting of Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), and Dries Devenyns (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). The combination was enough to set TV commentators, online coverage and Twitter aflutter.

Each Tour sees plenty of long raids, optimistic endeavors undertaken for a variety of reasons, from flying the colors, to setting up a GC man or grabbing some mountain or sprint points, to an honest belief in victory by men lucky enough to awake with good legs and a free hand to play. They’re crowd favorites, thanks to the uneasy tension of watching their yawning 15-minute gaps gradually chipped away over climbs and kilometers before the sprinters or the GC favorites roar by. You root for them in the same way you root for the mouse dropped into the snake tank.

But this one? This one was special, a royal breakaway of a different sort. Sure, it featured a Paris-Nice winner in Sanchez and Giro d’Italia champion in Scarponi. But to many observers, headlined by Voigt and Voeckler, two men who have somehow become stars by not being stars, headlined this break.

Voeckler and Voigt aren’t without their palmarès, of course. Voigt, whose rare combination of stone-hard toughness and good nature has launched tribute websites, countless Chuck Norris-style jokes, and t-shirts bearing his now famous “Shut up legs!” quote-turned-motto, boasts wins in five Criteriums International, stages in the Tour and the Giro, a host of small stage races, and two stints in Tour yellow, in 2001 and 2005.

Voeckler is a veritable collector of small French stage races, races like the Circuit de la Sarthe, the Tour du Haut Var, the Grand Prix Plumelec, the Etoile de Besseges, and the Four Days of Dunkirk, as well as the Tour of Luxembourg. Thanks to a career spent on Jean Rene Bernaudeau’s steadfastly French squad, he’s also collected his share of French Cup classics, including Paris-Bourges, the Trophee des Grimpeurs, and the Cholet-Pays de Loire. A win in this year’s Brabantse Pijl in Belgium further bolstered his one-day credentials.

But despite trophy cases even most professionals would envy, Voigt and Voeckler are both known more for the races they didn’t win, and have earned the respect of fans more for how they’ve chosen to apply their talents than for the number of bouquets they have thrown. Voigt is famous for his marathon – but rarely successful – breakaways and for the tireless work he has put in for GC leaders like Ivan Basso, Carlos Sastre, and Frank and Andy Schleck, churning out the kilometers with a long, thin peloton in his wake and someone else’s doomed breakaway in his sights. Far more famous for the headbanging than for winning the Peace Race or the storied, now defunct GP des Nations time trial.

And Voeckler’s dogged, doomed defenses of the yellow jerseys he wore for 10 days each in the 2005 and 2011 Tours make the highlight reels and preview issues far more often than his victories. Hardly the picture of a star, Voeckler combines an uncanny ability to read a race with undeniable tenacity, and uses both to parlay relatively modest physical gifts into performances that may not yield grand tour or monument victories, but which speak to fans in a way that those things sometimes do not. Despite a healthy and growing list of wins, he remains, somehow, the people’s underdog. In the past several years, he has also won fans with his loyalty, staying with Bernaudeau’s modest outfit even as his own success grew and the team was bumped from ProTour status for the 2010 season. At the end of that first year on the second tier, he re-upped again, reportedly despite more lucrative offers elsewhere. His decision helped the team with its last-minute salvation sponsorship from Europcar.

That Voeckler and Voigt can be the ones to put fans on the edge of their seats in a race that boasts nine grand tour winners, classics stars, and past and present world champions reveals something about cycling’s values, of its appreciation of effort, and of doomed missions, Quixotic pursuits, and toil for the glory of others. Of its belief in persistence, and the ability of brains to sometimes defeat brawn.

In stage 10, the moment that perhaps best defines both men came with just nine kilometers remaining and the major climbs in the rearview mirror. Voigt, seemingly dropped for good on the day’s final climb, the Cat. 3 ascent of the Col de Richemond, suddenly roared back into the picture. He had clawed back a minute’s deficit on the descent, and rather than sit on for a breather, Voigt attacked, attempting to go straight through the break. It was Voeckler who responded, reigning in Voigt, then coercing the rest to chase when Devenyns went on the attack. In a series of deft moves, Voeckler managed to pit his opponents against each other before making a perfectly timed jump for the victory.

Voeckler started today in the polka dot jersey of best climber, his second at the Tour, thanks to points gained in the Stage 10 break. He has a knack for jerseys. Despite that, and the stage win in his pocket, he will still be the underdog and the people’s darling. Voigt has neither a jersey nor a stage win, but has bolstered his legend nonetheless.

Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999, and he admits to being the Ryan behind Follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.