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.
Team Sky came into the 2011 Tour with a lot of hope and expectation. A difficult race the previous year, where their top GC rider Bradley Wiggins only finished 24th, was put down, in part, to the fact that it was the teams debut year and mistakes were bound to be made. Now though they thought they were ready to mount a serious challenge at the Tour de France. Bradley Wiggins had been going well so far in the season and won in the recent Criterium du Dauphine, beating rival Cadel Evans, and followed that up with a win in the National Championships. Sky fanboys all over the UK were being driven into a state of frenzy. They knew when the team launched they stated that their main aim was to “create the first British winner of the Tour de France within 5 years” but they could achieve it in 2!
Team Sky and their fans confidence had taken a further boost the previous day after Edvald Boasson Hagen had won their first ever Tour de France stage. Geraint Thomas was in the white jersey as best young rider and they occupied 6th, 7th and 8th in the overall. However all these positive points weren’t hiding a couple of truths. Out on the road the Sky riders still had a lot to learn about riding as a team and the tactics given to them by the DS’s were very limited.
In the nervous first week of Grand Tours there are plenty of sudden crashes in the peloton. The top riders will therefore stay at the front of the pack as this reduces the chance of being involved in a situation, there won’t be a mass of riders suddenly falling down infront of you at high speed. To further help them stay out of trouble he’ll have a couple of riders around him for protection. However during the first week you would often see Sky’s GC man Bradley Wiggins, easy to spot in his British Champions jersey, in the middle of the bunch with no teammates around him. The more this happened the more Sky were tempting fate.
With 40km of the stage from Le Mans to Chateauroux left it happened. There was a smaller crash almost 10km before as a warning but this one was massive. Dozens of riders were involved. Amazingly after most of the riders had untangled their bikes and started riding again there were only three left seriously injured. Remi Pauriol was sitting down cradling his arm, Chris Horner was in a ditch somewhere and Bradley Wiggins was wondering around in a daze. The doctor arrived fairly quickly though it was clear what was the problem as Wiggins like Pauriol was now holding his arm in the classic “I’ve broken my collarbone” fashion. The dream was over for Wiggins. He had paid the price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time but what was most disappointing was that he should have been in the wrong place.
Not being able to keep their main rider out of trouble wasn’t thethe end of Sky’s tactical woes though. As Wiggins was being assessed by the doctor three of his team mates (Edvald Boasson Hagen, Xavier Zandio and Juan Antonio Flecha) were waiting for him. Fine, this is standard practice. If Wiggins was good to continue they could try and pace him back up to the peloton, though the longer they waited the harder it would be, and it wouldn’t matter if they lost time as they weren’t GC riders. At least the white jersey leader Thomas whos time was precious wasn’t one of them? Well no but he was waiting further up the road along with Rigoberto Uran the exciting young Columbian. Why had Sky sacrificed their whole team to protect Wiggins now it was too late. Was it necessary? All of the eight remaining Sky riders rolled in 3 minutes 6 seconds behind the leaders. Their leader had crashed out and due to some strange tactics Uran’s GC and young riders chances were over along with Thomas’ in the young rider competition. At the start of the day they had three riders in the top 10 and now their best placed man was 38th. Sky didn’t just put all their eggs in one basket they dropped the basket too.