July 8, 2016 – A small band of journalists waited by bus before the start of stage 7 in L’Isle-Jourdain, a small town outside of the southern city of Toulouse. And as soon as the team meeting finished, Thomas Voeckler stepped out.
Words & images: James Startt – European Associate to peloton
From: Le Lioran, France
He knew what to expect. He knew that the journalists would be asking him about his chances in the Pyrénées which start today. After all, France’s southern-most mountain chain has often been center stage to Voeckler’s greatest exploits. It was here that the second-year professional defended his yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004. It was also here in 2010, where he won an impressive stage on a long solo ride into Bagnères de Luchon, where stage 8 will finish on Saturday. And he again rode through the Pyrénées in yellow in 2011, the year he finally finished fourth in the Tour.
But now 37, some were wondering if Voeckler can still exploit the many historic climbs found here. “It is true that I have a real affinity to this area, but we will have to see. This year’s Tour has been different for me. I just don’t know.”
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For the first time in over a decade, the 37-year old Voeckler is not the designated leader of the team he helped create. That honor goes to the young up-and-coming sprinter Bryan Coquard, who finished a close second to Marcel Kittel on stage 4. Voeckler instead, is what he calls and un électron libre or free agent, and in the first week he has been seen working for his teammate as well as going on the attack.
“You know Thomas has no trouble working for others and he is happy to see his teammates do well,” says Jean-René Bernadeau, the team’s general manager. “Thomas has accomplished so much in his career. Now he really wants to enjoy racing his bike.”
And after two winless seasons, Voeckler has ridden well all year, with four wins to his credit already. But this is the Tour de France.
“Honestly I don’t know where I stand” Voeckler says. “I’ve been working a lot for Bryan. And anyone who had done of bit of cycling knows that, when you ride at the front for an hour at 50km per hour, well, it takes it out of you. It’s not ideal for the mountains.”
Voeckler said that he probably would not go for the breaks on this first stage in the Pyrénées which finished at the Lac de Payolle. And he watched as a “Voeckler-esque” breakaway scampered up the road and catapulted British rider Stephen Cummings to his second stage win in two years. It was a vintage Voeckler move. But not on this day. He eventually finished 135th, 17 minutes and 25 seconds behind Cummings.
Instead he used the opening flat 100 kilometers to spin his legs, and then work into the climb up the Col d’Aspin, the only significant climb of the day. Tommorow (i.e stage 8), he said would be a better day.
“No it’s true that the stage to Bagnères is better for me. And it is true I have a lot of good memories there,” Voeckler said. But he admitted that, with age, he has to pick his moments. “I’m clearly closer to the end of my career than the beginning. That’s no scoop. And I’m not quite as strong as I was a couple of years ago. But this is the Tour de France and the smallest detail can make the difference. Just being two percent under your best is enough to really change your results. It’s enough to make things much more complicated. »
And while Voeckler admits that he has a lot of good memories in Bagnères-de-Luchon, he has has one bad one—the time when he finished second to Michael Rogers in 2014. But with the race returning to Bagnères on Saturday, Voeckler has an ideal opportunity to erase such memories.
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