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Voeckler’s time in yellow gives France plenty to celebrate

When Thomas Voeckler rode into the Tour de France yellow jersey 11 days ago, the 25-year-old Frenchman, with his beaming and infectious smile, brought a breath of fresh air into cycling that the sport has long needed. In an era that reeks of cynicism, commercialism and myriad on- and off-saddle scandals, Voeckler brought back to the Tour (and all those who love it) a much-needed and hefty dose of the romanticism that has drawn so many of us to cycling. Voeckler, 25, has been modest yet understandably appreciative of his spell in the yellow jersey. He knows the Tour is like no other race,

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By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews

Photo: AFP

When Thomas Voeckler rode into the Tour de France yellow jersey 11 days ago, the 25-year-old Frenchman, with his beaming and infectious smile, brought a breath of fresh air into cycling that the sport has long needed.

In an era that reeks of cynicism, commercialism and myriad on- and off-saddle scandals, Voeckler brought back to the Tour (and all those who love it) a much-needed and hefty dose of the romanticism that has drawn so many of us to cycling.

Voeckler, 25, has been modest yet understandably appreciative of his spell in the yellow jersey. He knows the Tour is like no other race, that the real struggle of a pro cyclist will still be his.

“Without a doubt it will boost my career. Sporting wise it has helped me discover who I am, but I won’t change,” he said. “My strength is that I have no great weaknesses and my weakness is that I have no great strength. I realize I don’t have a huge motor. My results I get from my hunger and aggression.”

It is true that since Voeckler took the yellow jersey by slipping into an opportunistic breakaway on stage 5 to Chartres, he has proven to be a leader with heart. In fact, he has so much of it that many have since joked he can’t be really French.

They say he has too much guts and that he is willing to put everything on the line, as he did to win the French championship. As foreigners love to remind the French cycling fans, the last time one of theirs won the Tour was in 1985 when Bernard Hinault bagged his fifth Tour victory.

In fact, Voeckler’s upbringing is anything but typically Gallic. Born in the Alsatian town of Schiltigheim, he was actually raised in Martinique. There, his now deceased father taught Voeckler to sail, a sport the younger Voeckler grew to love. He even made several cross-Atlantic trips with his dad who was sadly lost at sea during one such solo voyage when Thomas was a teenager.

As a cyclist, Voeckler’s professional career began in 2001 when he signed with the Bonjour team of former French cyclist Jean-Rene Bernadau that today is Brioches La Boulangere.

Showing signs of a remarkable instinct for survival in that rookie year, Voeckler was the only member of the team to finish the Giro d’Italia — 135th, second-to-last, 2:54.07 behind the Italian winner Gilberto Simoni.

Voeckler has enjoyed his time in the yellow jersey

Voeckler has enjoyed his time in the yellow jersey

Photo: Graham Watson

His career progressed last year with several wins, including the Tour of Luxembourg, but it really kicked in this season with wins at the Across Morbihan race, a mountain stage of the Route du Sud, and the French championship on June 27.

This week, there has been talk that the volcano in Martinique is about to erupt. Little wonder, considering the impact Voeckler’s successes have had in France and back home where the local tongue is Creole — a language Voeckler was more than happy to draw on when asked by French television for a message to those in Martinique.

Voeckler’s reign in yellow takes nothing away from the dominance of Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal teammates. He appears stronger than ever. They do too.

And judging by what we have seen — in the prologue, team time trial and Pyrénées — the Texan is destined to create history come the Tour’s finale in Paris on Sunday afternoon.

But in Voeckler’s defense of the yellow jersey we have been reminded of the weary and sometimes overused adage that dreams CAN come true.

He is not Armstrong. His La Boulangere team does not have the luster of the U.S. Postal Service. In the Tour, there could be no greater extremes of pedigree and collective might and power. But thanks to Voeckler, we have been reminded of how human beings — a single one or united as a team — can rise beyond their physical limits, whether they are limits set by others, themselves or even the environment around them.

True, Voeckler’s dig to the finish to La Mongie halfway up the fabled Col du Tourmalet last Thursday was impressive. He came in 3:59 behind Armstrong and a victorious Italian Ivan Basso (CSC). But I will never, ever forget the sight of Voeckler 24 hours later as he raced against the clock in those last few and steep kilometers up to the finish of Plateau de Beille.

There is the image of his steely blue eyes, his grimace of pain, the way he bit his bottom lip, and how his shoulders dipped to the left and then right, before, and finally, that smile we had all become accustomed to seeing and his clenched fist of triumph as he scraped through to finish with 22 seconds of his overall lead still intact.

It was sheer, unadulterated survival. So desperate was Voeckler’s fight, his life may well have depended on it. He was a veritable tiger on two wheels.

Armstrong had already dusted off Italian Ivan Basso (CSC) – and every rival in his wake. But as Voeckler continued his fight to reach the finish line before the credit of his 5:24 overnight overall lead on Armstrong expired, he was greeted by the masses as one who may have been a real danger to Armstrong’s sixth consecutive Tour victory.

This week as the Tour heads into the Alps and Armstrong continues to turn the screws, Voeckler may well fall back into the relative anonymity he came from. But that smile is one for the ages.

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