The last Frenchman to win the Tour de France was Bernard Hinault way back in 1985 when he won his fifth Grand Boucle. He 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 later. Through the 90’s Richard Virenque podiumed twice but never really looked like winning, the following decade countless ‘New Hinaults’ came and went and now it is 32 years since ‘The Badgers” success.
At times things have been desperate for French racing fans but their appetite for some home success in their race has never wavered. That hunger may soon be satisfied but the closest I have come to seeing a French Tour victory was in 2011 and the nearly man was Tommy Voeckler.
He was a popular but unlikely source for plenty of excitement on the roadsides during that Tour. After he wore the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004 his high status among French fans was assured for ever. Stage wins in 2009 and 2010 and his natural attacking style only added to his esteem. 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.
His reputation outside of France is a little more mixed. Some love him, some get feelings of angry annoyance as soon as they see him. He is old-school, not interested in heart-rate monitors and power files. He races on instinct which makes him entertaining to watch. But he also tries to be too entertaining at times. He loves it when there is a camera trained on him so he can show us through various facial expressions how he is feeling, desperate for the viewer to understand that though he is winning he is suffering terribly which makes what he is doing heroic. In the days before television races would be explained by reporters in the various newspapers. The days events would be told in epic terms, with the truth often embellished, to keep the reader interested. The character of Thomas Voeckler could easily have been lifted out of the pages of L’Auto.
Voeckler’s home popularity, his penchant for drama and attacking flair created the perfect storm for a highly exciting Tour in 2011.
It started on stage 9, a day with seven climbs which 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 big 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 the escapees increased their lead. Towards the end of the stage the winner was sure to come from the breakaway which had lost two strong riders after a French TV car sent Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha flying into a fence. At the finish Luis-Leon Sanchez broke French hearts by winning the sprint from Voeckler and Sandy Casar but Tommy was about to start his second stint in yellow.
At this point of the race he was 2 minutes 26 second ahead of the top placed GC contender Cadel Evans and had even more time over riders such as Alberto Contador and the Schlecks. He maintained that gap till stage 12 where he unsurprisingly lost time on a parcours which had the Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden. His lead was cut to 1 minute 49 seconds which was now to Frank Schleck. Over the next two mountains stages though he held his own, maintaining his lead and puffing his cheeks out to show his relief as he crossed the finish line each time. On stage 16 Evans gained time on the GC men and was back up to 2nd, 1 minute 45 behind and soon everyone vying for the yellow jersey was chipping away at Voeckler’s lead.
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 celebrations of the moment made the whole spectacle, for those watching around the world, all the better. Voeckler was in his element, relishing his moment in the spotlight and his expressions and body language became more and more pronounced.
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 days stage was short at 109 km, which suited Voeckler, but included the category 1 Col du Télégraphe then the HC climbs of the Galibier and 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-trialist and Voeckler still had 1 minute 12 seconds on him, he could add up to a minute on that if he had the yellow jersey on him shoulders during the race against the truth.
So 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 forgotten.
The catalyst for his unravelling was another swashbuckling riders, 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 Spaniards wheel, slowly followed by Evans and then Voeckler managed to claw his way up to them too. Near the top of the Télégraphe Contador attacked again. Schleck countered again but Voeckler and Evans were unable to, then Evans suffered a mechanical and needed to change bikes meaning Voeckler was alone and exposed.
He emptied himself trying to get back up to Andy Schleck and Contador. Thinking back to that moment I can only visualise it in slow motion and it is endless. He was undertaking a 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 drilling it). He should have sat up and waited for the main group and teammates but he didn’t seem able to. Eventually the peloton caught up with him. ‘The Fairytale of The Tour de France’ starring Thomas Voeckler wasn’t going to have a happy ending. Voeckler was done. Half way up the Galibier he gave his teammate Pierre Roland the green light to race for himself saying, “Don’t worry about me anymore”.
By the bottom of Alpe d’Huez the whole race was back together but Voeckler soon lost contact with the Schlecks and Evans and by the top he had given 2 minutes 25 seconds to them. He had lost his chance of victory and was now down in 4th. During the time trial Voeckler finished faster than both Andy and Frank and lost 2 minutes 7 seconds to Evans. France could have won their Tour if Tommy had just managed to keep his cool the day before.
This will be Voeckler’s final race before he starts his new career. Unsurprisingly he has found himself a role in the French soap opera “Plus belle la vie”.