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Tour de France

Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Voeckler the survivor has restored romanticism to the Tour

COL DU GALIBIER, France (VN) — Thursday’s gigantic stage 18 at the Tour de France was all about survival, whether that was simply to stay in the race and fight a more strategic battle to remain in the race for the yellow jersey.

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COL DU GALIBIER, France (VN) — Thursday’s gigantic stage 18 at the Tour de France was all about survival, whether that was simply to stay in the race and fight a more strategic battle to remain in the race for the yellow jersey.

Tenacity: Voeckler's run in yellow has lasted much longer than anyone expected. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

For Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck, that meant digging deeper than he has ever gone in his seven years of professional racing to finish off a two-hour-long breakaway with a gutsy climb to victory on the windswept 8,678-foot summit of the Col du Galibier.

For BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans, his yellow-jersey dreams forced him to go to the limit, ignoring those just following his wheel, to close the gap on Schleck from 4:24 to 2:15 in the last (and steepest) 11km of the Galibier climb. That superlative effort eliminated Spanish challengers Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez from the podium stakes and left the fighting Aussie within 57 seconds of Schleck on GC.

Alongside Schleck’s audacious ride and Evans’ extraordinary defense was the miraculous survival of Team Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, who turned himself inside out to stay with Evans on the Galibier and save the yellow jersey by 15 seconds over stage winner Schleck. “I wanted to take the jersey, but Thomas surprised everyone,” Schleck said.

Voeckler is also surprising himself every day that he retains the lead. He has now worn the hallowed yellow jersey for 10 days at this Tour, which matches his performance at his debut Tour in 2004, when he took the lead on the fifth stage following a long breakaway into Chartres. Those seven years ago, he lost most of his time gains in the Pyrénées, but clung to the lead for 10 days until losing it to Lance Armstrong on the first alpine stage into Villard-de-Lans.

By the end of that 2004 Tour, Voeckler placed 18th overall — which remains his best-ever finish. In the years since that glorious debut, he has placed 124th, 89th, 66th, 97th, 67th and 76th. Not exactly the record of a main contender.

We knew that Voeckler was a great bike racer in one-day races and short stage races, but the French can barely believe that their two-time national champion is leading the Tour de France with only three stages to go. It’s been 26 years since La Marseillaise was last played for a Tour winner, Bernard Hinault, in 1985.

But not even Voeckler knew he had the climbing strength to defend the yellow jersey on Thursday, on the Tour’s highest-ever mountaintop finish at the end of a six-plus-hour stage that proved just too much for defending champion Contador and Olympic champ Sanchez.

ACTUAL GC (after stage 18 )

    1. Thomas Voeckler 3,183km in 71:34:06
    2. Andy Schleck at 0:15
    3. Fränk Schleck at 1:08
    4. Cadel Evans at 1:12
    5. Damiano Cunego at 3:46
    6. Ivan Basso s.t.
    7. Alberto Contador at 4:44
    8. Samuel Sanchez at 5:20
    9. Tom Danielson at 7:08
    10. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 9:27
    11. Rein Taaramae at 9:36
    12. Pierre Rolland at 10:09
    13. Kevin De Weert at 11:21
    14. Haimar Zubeldia at 12:01
    15. Rigoberto Uran at 12:46

Besides thrilling the fans Voeckler’s performance has helped make this Tour become the most suspenseful since 1989 when Greg LeMond came back in the final time trial to win by eight seconds over Laurent Fignon. And even if Voeckler finally gives up the lead at L’Alpe d’Huez on Friday to Schleck or Evans, he has reinserted a romantic element into a race that has had too many predictable winners over the past two decades.

Whatever his final position in Paris, the 32-year-old Frenchman has earned new respect from his peers and will continue his career with new ambitions. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the Voeckler story is that he rides for a second-tier Pro Continental team that was within hours of disbanding last fall. Its title sponsor was not continuing, a few of its best riders had joined other teams, and general manager Jean-René Bernaudeau was on the point of closing shop.

But Voeckler, who had a 2011 contract ready to sign with Cofidis, said he would stick with Bernaudeau if was able to clinch a sponsor before the October deadline for registering elite pro teams with the UCI. On the very last day, because of Voeckler’s commitment, Bernaudeau was able to close a deal with one of the companies he’d been courting for weeks.

The new title sponsor was Europcar, a Paris-based car rental company that also operates National and Alamo in Europe. “We’re going through a difficult economic period,” Bernaudeau said. “And Thomas allowed us to find a solution.”

Unusually, Voeckler has stayed with the same team organization throughout his 11 years as a pro, always with Bernaudeau, a former lieutenant of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. Based in the Vendée region of western France — where this year’s Tour started three weeks ago — Voeckler has raced for Bernaudeau under five different sponsors: Bonjour (a one-time free newspaper), Brioches La Boulangère (a commercial bakery), Bouygues Telecom and BBox (mobile phone operators) and, now, Europcar.

Voeckler, who most cycling fans only remembered as that charismatic young man who wore the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004, has now reached new heights of popularity. His best-ever season just keeps getting better.

In February, he won the opening stage of the Mediterranean Tour after instigating one of his typical long-distance breakaways, and he then took the overall title at the Tour du Haut Var, clinching it with an audacious downhill attack on the final stage.

In March, he won two stages of Paris-Nice at the end of long, opportunistic breakaways, but his Pro Continental team didn’t get an invitation to ride Milan-San Remo. Instead, Voeckler raced the following day’s GP Cholet, the year’s first French Cup race, where he pulled off a brilliant solo win; after his team wound-up the pace, he surged clear inside the 3km marker and held off a 70-strong pack to win by less than a second.

Runner-up Tony Gallopin of FDJ said, “What a stud! He was the super-favorite and still did his stuff.” But Voeckler, who pulled of a similar, if shorter, winning attack at last September’s GP de Québec in Canada, put that fifth 2011 victory in perspective by saying: “Even if I’m happy to win, this isn’t Milan-San Remo. I wasn’t jumping clear on the Poggio.”

In the only major classics he rode in April, Voeckler finished in the peloton from which Tom Boonen took the victory at Ghent-Wevelgem, and he was prominent for much of the Tour of Flanders before arriving with the 33-strong pack that sprinted for 13th place. The Frenchman then took ninth overall at the Circuit de la Sarthe and fourth at the Tour du Finistère before heading to Italy’s Giro del Trentino.

After a short opening time trial, Voeckler saw that his only opportunity for a stage win was on the next day’s finish at Ledro Bezzecca, which featured a 12.5km, 4.5-percent climb before a gentle 5.5km uphill to the line. After an earlier break was brought back on the main part of the climb, Voeckler made a strong counterattack 7km from the finish; only Lampre-ISD’s Michele Scarponi, honing his form for the Giro d’Italia, could match the Europcar’s leader’s burst.

“When I saw Scarponi was there,” Voeckler told L’Équipe, “I took a little breather. Then I took only three or four pulls to keep some energy ahead of the sprint. I knew that he was mainly looking at the GC.” That was a smart decision because the stage ended with Scarponi taking the overall lead after losing the sprint to Voeckler, who said, “I know the next two stages are too mountainous for me.” Even so, he finished that Giro del Trentino in seventh overall, 1:12 behind overall winner Scarponi.

That stage victory more than any other performance in his career showed that Voeckler had the ability to do what he is now doing at the Tour de France — especially as the man he beat there, Scarponi, went on the finish second to Contador at the Giro.

What’s most refreshing about Voeckler’s astounding performances at this 2011 Tour is that he has achieved them without focusing on this one race. He has done it the old-fashioned way, by riding (and winning) races all year long.

His only preparation for the Tour was racing. In May, he won the Four Days of Dunkirk after a brilliant, successful solo break on the hilliest stage and was 56th in the Tour of Bavaria. And in June, he placed 10th overall at the mountainous Critérium du Dauphiné where he climbed almost as well as Evans (who was second there) while helping his teammate Christophe Kern place sixth overall,

Voeckler also trains the old-fashioned way, using instincts rather than power meters. After he won the Québec ProTour race last September, the laid-back French rider made an interesting statement. “The vélo is not always an exact sport,” he said. Indeed, with his second round of 10 days yellow, Voeckler has restored romanticism to the Tour. And that perhaps is his greatest achievement.