Words: James Shepherd / Images: Cor Vos
In the course of a storied career, Thomas Voeckler’s on-camera affectations did much to rub some cycling fans the wrong way – and it’s rumoured he had a fairly unforgiving ‘nickname’ among riders of the peloton, too. But for one month one summer, he ascended far beyond his limitations.
When Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour de France in 1985 it would have been difficult to argue with anyone predicting further home success at La Grand Boucle. French riders had been victorious in nine of the last 11 editions after all.
A little light gurning practice at the 2014 Tour
The Breton came close the following year to making it a record six titles, in ’87 his supposed heir Jean-François Bernard finished third and Laurent Fignon was runner-up by the smallest of margins two years after that. But as time passed it seemed that a French Tour win was becoming increasingly unlikely. Through the 1990s Richard Virenque podiumed twice, but never really looked like winning and in the following decade countless ‘New Hinaults’ came and went.
Suddenly, it is more than 32 years since the French last tasted victory.
At times things have looked desperate for French cycling fans, but their hunger for a countryman to be victorious in their Grand Tour has never waned. The closest that dreadful yearning has come to being satisfied in recent times was in 2011, when Tommy Voeckler wrote, directed and played the lead role in a Tour de France blockbuster.
On the roadsides during July that year he was a popular but unlikely focal point for the excitement surrounding the general classification. After he wore the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004 his high status among French fans was assured forever. Stage wins in 2009 and 2010, plus his natural attacking style only added to the esteem in which he was held. But his highest finish in the Tour de France was 18th, during that 2004 edition, and in his seven other entries in the race he never got close to the top 50. He wasn’t a GC man for the Grand Tours.
In yellow on Alpe d'Huez at the 2011 Tour
His reputation outside France was a little more mixed. Some loved him, some got feelings of annoyance as soon as they saw his cartoon-like face. He was old-school, not interested in heart rate monitors and power files. He raced on instinct, which made him unpredictable and entertaining to watch. But he also seemed to try to be too entertaining at times. He appeared to love it when there was a camera trained on him, so he could show us his showreel of various facial expressions, desperate for the viewer to understand that though he was winning he was suffering terribly, which made what he was doing yet more heroic. In the time before television, races would be described to fans in the various newspapers. The day’s events would be recounted by reporters in epic terms, with the truth often embellished to keep the reader interested. The character of Tommy Voeckler could easily have been lifted straight out of the pages of L’Auto.
Regardless of your opinion of him, it can’t be denied that Voeckler’s home popularity, his penchant for drama and attacking flair created the perfect storm for a highly exciting Tour in 2011.
He had already had an impressive season. He won the Tour du Haut Var and the Four Days of Dunkirk, finished tenth overall at the Dauphiné and bagged two stages at Paris-Nice. He would have surely been thinking that adding a few Tour stage wins to his palmarès would be possible. Voeckler was a man who believed in destiny. His wife was due to give birth on 10 July which was the day the Tour reached Saint-Flour and the stage profile had his name all over it. However their baby arrived early, on the Tuesday before the race start. Voeckler spent the next days between the hospital and his team hotel, he was off his bike for three days and the upcoming race moved to the back of his mind as he enjoyed some special time with his family. Tommy was devoted to his family and always put them first. For all the attention he seemed to crave on the bike he was intent on keeping his private life private.
In yellow at the 2011 Tour
But come Saturday Voeckler, ever the professional, was ready to turn out for his team, Europcar. It was the 20th anniversary of the formation of Jean-René Bernaudeau’s outfit and Voeckler was keen to do them proud. Voeckler loved the family atmosphere his manager fostered around the team and at the end of the previous year he had even knocked back an offer from Cofidis, an offer which would have almost doubled his wages. The 2011 Tour also started in the Vendée region of France, the area where Europcar and Voeckler were based.
After staying relatively quiet for the first few days Voeckler showed his trademark attacking flair on stage five by going on the offensive in the last 30 km with Jérémy Roy. The two Frenchmen were caught inside the last 5 km. The following day Voeckler again made an effort, this time leaving his move till the 3 km to go point, but he was caught under the flamme rouge.
Things really started on stage nine, the one to Saint-Flour, a day with seven climbs and that suited Tommy down to the ground. He attacked on the first ascent, attracting some strong breakaway companions.
If Voeckler’s luck was in that day, it certainly wasn’t for some others. There was a serious crash in the peloton on the descent of the second climb, the Col du Pas de Peyrol. Alexandre Vinokourov, David Zabriskie and Jurgen Van Den Broeck all suffered broken bones and had to abandon. As the bunch took time to recover and eventually call a truce, the escapees increased their lead.
Towards the end of the stage it was clear the winner was to come from the breakaway, which had been whittled down to three riders after a French TV car sent Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha flying into a fence. At the finish Luis Leon Sánchez broke French hearts by winning the sprint from Voeckler and Sandy Casar, but Tommy was about to start his second stint in yellow. He was a decent 2 minutes 26 seconds ahead of the top-placed GC contender, Cadel Evans, and had even more time over riders such as Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers, Fränk and Andy.
King of the Mountains in 2012
The very next day Tommy was at it again. He followed an attack by Philippe Gilbert, leader in the points classification, with 15 km to go. The sight of the green and yellow jerseys vying for the stage lit up the race, though the two were eventually caught by the pack. He was making the most of his time in yellow and many watching the race reckoned that time would come to an end in the Pyrenees. But Voeckler climbed superbly for three stages and by the second rest day he still led the race, now 1 minute 49 seconds ahead of Fränk Schleck.
Once they reached the Alps though, the style of the true high mountain climbers began to make a difference. Voeckler started looking ragged and soon everyone with a shout of bringing home the yellow jersey was chipping away at his lead.
The possibility that Tommy was a contender for Tour victory had entered people's thoughts though. Despite his daily protestations to the contrary, the idea would have been in Voeckler’s mind too. If he wanted to turn the idea into reality he would have to enter unknown and uncomfortable territory. In order to maintain his lead he would have to employ a set of measured tactics different to his usual strategy of sudden, unpredictable – and often futile – attacks. Any deviation from that path would cost him dearly now.
On stage 17 Voeckler couldn’t help himself. He sortied off the final descent into Pinerolo, but ended up pushing himself too hard and he left the race route twice, once ending up in someone's driveway. He lost 27 seconds to his rivals and admitted after the finish that he should have taken fewer risks.
But he was still in first position and the number of days he had been there was approaching double figures. The French racing fans were loving every minute of it and their enthusiasm and celebration made the 2011 Tour de France a great spectacle. Racing fans all over the world started cheering Tommy on, wishing and even believing he would hold his position till Paris. An almost tearful Paul Sherwen shouted “Vive la France! Vive la révolution!” as he watched on.
At the GP de Cycliste de Montréal, 2015
Voeckler was in his element, relishing his moment in the spotlight and his facial expressions and body language became more pronounced. At the end of each stage he puffed out more air from his cheeks than the last and his gaze to the heavens lingered a moment longer.
Going into the 19th stage he now only had a slender 15-second lead over Andy Schleck. He had almost ceded his entire advantage but there were only three more stages, and time could only be won or lost in two of them. The day’s stage was short at 109 km, which suited Voeckler, but included the category 1 Col du Télégraphe then the hors categorie climbs of the Col du Galibier and L’Alpe d’Huez. The following and penultimate stage was a 42.5 km time trial. If he could stick with his GC rivals up to the Alpe then he would still have an outside chance of winning the Tour. Of the top five, only Cadel Evans could call himself a time triallist of any calibre and Voeckler still had 1 minute 12 seconds on him.
Voeckler’s plan before the start of stage 19 must have been to stick with the Schlecks and Evans and if that didn’t work he would get his mountain domestiques Anthony Charteau and Pierre Rolland to help him keep them in his sights. For some reason though, he did neither of these things. He panicked and all the race craft that the 32-year-old had learned over the years was useless to him in the position of race leader.
The catalyst for his unravelling was another swashbuckling rider, Alberto Contador, launching an early attack. He was 4 minutes 44 down on the GC, but being such a classy rider he had to be followed. Andy Schleck was quickly on the Spaniard’s wheel, slowly followed by Evans and then Voeckler who managed to claw his way back up to the lead group. Near the top of the Télégraphe Contador attacked again and Schleck countered again, but this time Voeckler and Evans were unable to stay in touch. It was soon apparent that Evans had suffered a mechanical and he sat up waiting for a bike change.
This left Voeckler on his own and exposed.
Vockler salutes his adopted homeland of the Vendée as he loses yellow on top of the Galibier
He emptied himself trying to get back up to Andy Schleck and Contador. Voeckler appeared to be moving in slow motion and the sight of him in no-man's-land was excruciating. Tommy was undertaking the futile task of trying to bridge back to Schleck and Contador, but the effort he was using was also delaying getting caught by the peloton (which Evans was back in and had his BMC team driving along). He should surely have sat up and waited for the main group and his teammates, but he didn’t seem able. Eventually the peloton caught up with him. It seemed the fairytale of the 2011 Tour de France starring Thomas Voeckler wasn’t going to have a happy ending. He was done. Halfway up the Galibier he gave his teammate, Pierre Rolland, the green light to race for himself saying, “Don’t worry about me anymore”.
Along the bottom of the valley heading to Le Bourg-d’Osians, Anthony Charteau and Cyril Gautier were doing their best to pace Voeckler back to the leaders, but Tommy, revealing his fatigue, threw a bottle to the ground and barked at Charteau that he was going too fast.
By the bottom of Alpe d’Huez the Europcar boys had done their job and the race was back together, but Voeckler soon lost contact with the Schlecks and Evans as the hairpins started. It was a long haul up the mountain on depleted reserves and by the top he had given 2 minutes 25 seconds to his rivals. He had not only lost his chance of victory, but was off the podium in what must have felt like a lowly fourth position.
Voeckler had ridden a perfect race, apart from the overly aggressive stage 17 downhill and his hopeless bridging attempt on the final mountain stage. How much did the two tactical blunders cost him? How much further would he have stayed with the Schlecks and Evans up Alpe d’Huez if he hadn't wasted that energy? Would he have only lost a handful of seconds rather than almost two and a half minutes?
During the time trial the next day Voeckler was faster than both Andy and Fränk and lost 2 minutes 7 seconds to Evans. He missed getting France their first podium in 14 years by 50 seconds and the margin between him and his country’s first win since Hinault was 3 minutes 20.
In all, Voeckler lost 27 seconds from the stage 17 detour, plus 2 minutes 25 seconds on the Alpe. That leaves a mere 28 seconds between him and Evans, which might easily have been accounted for with the ‘magic time’ that comes from wearing yellow in the Tour’s final time trial.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 18.