It is hard to believe really, that nearly a decade has passed since popular French rider Thomas Voeckler raced into the history books, capturing the yellow jersey for a second time, and holding onto it for 10 full days. But as the Tour de France races up the grueling Puy Mary on stage 13, Voeckler’s epic 2011 ride resonates.
While Voeckler was never considered one of the strongest riders in the peloton, he was revered as one of the smartest. Voeckler had, what some call, ‘the science of racing.’ And he employed it perfectly on this day.
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“I remember at the team meeting I asked all of the riders to neutralize all of the attacks for the first 50 kilometers, just cover the attacks by not taking a pull,” he told Velonews while at the Tour de France this week. “That is something I rarely do, but I knew there was a big climb about 50 kilometers into the race and I really wanted to make my move there.”
The stage from Issoire to Saint-Flour started fast, as numerous riders understood that the stage was perfect for a breakaway. And for the entire first hour of racing, there were non-stop attacks. But it was Voeckler’s move that succeeded, as he broke away with five other riders—Luis León Sánchez, Juan Antonio Flecha, Johnny Hoogerland, Sandy Casar, and Niki Terpstra.
And as they crossed the Puy Mary midway through the race, their gap opened up. “I had to make a decision,” Voeckler recalls. “I was the best-placed rider in the group. Should I try for the yellow jersey or should I try for the stage win? I had to make a decision, not knowing if either would work.”
After discussing the two options with his Europcar team director, Voeckler opted to ride for yellow and as a result took a majority of pulls, knowing that he would have little left for the sprint. “Thor Hushovd started in yellow that day. But when I heard that his team was chasing and not getting any time back, I understood that we could stay away.”
Then, just 35 kilometers from the finish, a France Television car passed the group on one of the countless narrow roads found in the rustic Auvergne region in Central France. But as it passed, it brushed Flecha, sending him instantly to the ground, while Hoogerland was catapulted off the road and into barbed wire fencing. Voeckler, who was pulling at the front, also got hit by Flecha, but he managed to stay upright. It was an unforgettable moment of misfortune in the Tour history, and is still remembered today.
“Flecha’s bike hit me in my tendon. It really hurt but it didn’t destabilize me. Personally, I would have preferred finishing in a group of five as I was not riding for the stage win. I was just interested in taking time and getting the jersey.”
Nevertheless, as the remaining riders climbed into Saint-Flour, they possessed nearly a four-minute lead. Sanchez won the stage, but Voeckler captured the yellow jersey by nearly two minutes. And it proved to be the start of his second 10-day run in yellow, after a similar effort in 2004. In many ways, these two tenures in yellow serve as bookend to a long career, which finally ended in 2017.
“It’s funny, when I look back on my two tenures in yellow, about the only thing that is the same is that they both lasted 10 days. The biggest difference in 2011 was that I was so much more experienced. In 2004, I didn’t really understand what was happening. But in 2011 I was able to deal with the yellow jersey and also savor it.”
Friday’s stage 13 of course promises to be much different as the race actually finishes on the summit of the Puy Mary for the first time. “There are several roads that lead to the top of the Puy Mary,” says Tour de France race director Thierry Gouvenou. “But the one we are doing this year is by far the hardest. There are some really steep pitches.”
This year Voeckler will be in the race, but on the back of a motorbike where he serves as a special in-race commentator for France Television.
“I rode it a couple of weeks ago for France Television,” Voeckler added. “Honestly you could have a breakaway or a real mano-a-mano with the favorites. But let me tell you, the last couple of kilometers are really tough. It is just very steep with no place to recover or even breathe. There will definitely be time gaps among the favorites. Somebody could easily lose up to a minute. That is a given!”