With road racing taking a break, VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt return to their weekly Throwback Thursday series. We dip into the memory bank to explore some of the biggest names and events during the past few decades.
This week, we look at Thomas Voeckler, an inspired and popular rider, who, on his best days, was capable of some big rides.
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His best moments came during the Tour de France, and his two inspiration runs in the yellow jersey — in 2004 and again in 2011 — made him a national hero.
Of course, Voeckler was no slouch, and he won 45 races and the King of the Mountains prize during the 2012 Tour. It was his against-the-odds yellow jersey raids, however, that captured the attention of French fans.
What was your standout moment in covering Thomas Voeckler?
James Startt: As a photographer, Thomas Voeckler was always a ton of fun to cover. He was just such an emotional rider, an uncanny rider. You never knew quite what to expect from Voeckler but he was one of those riders—not unlike Jens Voigt—that would just made the most out of every situation presented to him, be it going for a stage win, the KOM jersey or even the yellow jersey. Simply put, on a good day, Voeckler was capable of great things.
Voeckler first blasted onto the scene in the 2004 Tour de France when he captured the yellow jersey after jumping into an early breakaway on stage five. Going into the stage, Lance Armstrong made it clear that he was not interested in keeping the yellow jersey so early into the race. As a result, nearly half the peloton wanted to make the early break as everyone understood that it had a good chance of staying away all the way into the historic town of Chartres. It was Voeckler who made it into the break, and as the best-placed rider, took the yellow jersey at the finish.
Also read: Voeckler recounts historic breakaway
Many were surprised, but they shouldn’t have been. After all Voeckler had just won the French championships the week before the Tour started. He was a true up-and-coming talent, and he proved it again on the roads of the Tour de France as he defended the jersey for 10 days.
It was a feat he duplicated in 2011, capturing the jersey on stage nine and carrying it all the way to the Alpe d’Huez, the final climbing day in the Tour.
Opportunistic riders like Voeckler are often criticized for being lucky. But when that luck happens time and time again, it is clearly not about luck, but rather just plain smarts. Voeckler was far from the biggest talent in the peloton, but he had that thing known as race science.
Andrew Hood: The 2011 Tour de France and his crushing time losses on the Galibier.
Voeckler defied expectations — as he had been throughout that year’s Tour — and actually defended yellow that day.
But his lead shrank from 1:18 to just 15 seconds to Andy Schleck. With l’Alpe d’Huez looming the next day, the writing was on the wall.
Voeckler actually rode out of his skin up the 21 lacets — having the yellow tunic on your back will do that — but he dipped to fourth overall. The Alpe saw him lose too much time to the Schleck brothers, and despite seeing a longish 40km time trial the next day, he’d end up fourth in Paris some 50 seconds off the podium.
Those were tough times for French cycling, and Voeckler gave something for the home fans to cheer about. Still, fourth is a bitter pill for any rider. Hitting the podium would have been huge.
What’s your favorite personal story or anecdote from interactions with Voeckler?
Hood: Voeckler was a natural showman, and he always played up to the crowd. Some might call some of his antics show-boating, but the French fans ate it up. He was always an open book, letting his emotions pour out of the pedals.
In 2011, many were starting to call him the favorite to win the Tour. In stage 9 that year, Voeckler rode into a big breakaway that delivered the stage win for Luis León Sánchez, and Voeckler bounded into the lead at 2:29 ahead of the favored Cadel Evans.
In fact, I was on one of the media motorcycles that day when the written media can get out on the road and see the action from inside the peloton. The French motorcycle driver, a giant of a man who followed all the French races, was quick to point out that Voeckler could prove troublesome for the others if they let him get too far off the front. As we nibbled on French cheese in a quick stop, the motorcycle driver rightly called Voeckler to end up that day in yellow.
It was obvious to everyone that Voeckler was on the form of his life. Unlike in 2004, when he had a huge nine-minute-plus lead on the GC favorites, this time, Voeckler was seen as a more legitimate threat.
He’d also learned a few things about dealing with the media. Voeckler publicly played down his overall GC aspirations, calling Evans the favorite to win — he proved right — but he drove everyone to the limit in the Alps all the way to the final road stage to force them to take it away from him.
Startt: Oh, many. Voeckler was one of those riders that was always very accessible. He always had his head on his shoulders and his feet on the ground. One thing I really liked about Voeckler—besides his gritty racing—was that he was always very open. I could always ring him up, and on many occasions, I could jump into the team bus for some behind-the-scene photos.
I’ll never forget in 2004, during his first run in yellow. I had just started working on my long-term series inside the team buses, and before the start, in Limoges, I asked if I could get a few minutes on the bus as Voeckler prepared for another day in yellow. He told me to step right in. He did not know me and I did not know him. But it didn’t matter. He welcomed me and continued to joke with his teammates as he prepared for the day.
The same scenario presented itself again in 2011 when he was making his second run in yellow. This time around, Voeckler was an established star, and much like Julian Alaphilippe in 2019, he was looking more like a potential Tour winner with each passing day.
Little matter, when I asked if I could get onto the bus, the answer was the same. But then Voeckler, like his long-term manager Jean-René Bernaudeau, always valued a good working relationship with the media.