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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Voeckler on his best year ever

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Apr. 25, 2011
Voeckler struggles to retain his yellow jersey on stage 13 of the 2004 Tour. Lance Armstrong won the stage (and the overall title), but Voeckler held onto the lead after this day. AFP PHOTO JOEL SAGET

Europcar’s French national champion moves to six wins in 2011

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews editor-at-large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This 11th installment focuses on one of this season’s most prolific winners, Thomas Voeckler, the reigning French national champion.

The same afternoon that Philippe Gilbert was winning the Flèche Wallonne atop the notorious Mur de Huy last Wednesday, another French-speaking rider was taking a hilltop stage victory at the Giro del Trentino in the Dolomite mountains of Italy. That would be Thomas Voeckler, the current French national champion, notching (like Gilbert) his sixth win of the year and cementing his leadership of the 2011 UCI Europe Tour.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through April 24)

1. HTC-Highroad 17 (seven riders)
2. Garmin-Cervélo 12 (seven riders)
Team RadioShack 12 (seven riders)
4. Rabobank 12 (five riders)
5. Lampre-ISD 11 (six riders)
6. Movistar 10 (five riders)
7. Saxo Bank-SunGard 10 (four riders)
8. Omega Pharma-Lotto 9 (two riders)
9. Liquigas-Cannondale 8 (four riders)
10. Leopard-Trek 7 (three riders)
11. Vacansoleil-DCM 6 (four riders)
Sky 6 (four riders)
13. Katusha 3 (three riders)
Astana 3 (three riders)
15. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
16. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
17. BMC Racing 2 (one rider)
Euskaltel-Euskadi 2 (one rider)

This has been the best season start ever for Voeckler, who most cycling fans remember as the charismatic young man who wore the yellow jersey for 10 days at the 2004 Tour de France before finally giving it up to Lance Armstrong in the Pyrénées. Seven years on, at age 31, Voeckler is more popular than ever in his home country and, along with Sylvain Chavanel, is its most successful rider.

Unusually, Voeckler has stayed with the same team throughout his 11 years as a pro, always with team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau, a former lieutenant of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. Based in the Vendée region of western France — where this year’s Tour starts — Voeckler has raced for Bernaudeau under five different sponsors: Bonjour (a one-time free newspaper), Brioches La Boulangère (a commercial bakery), Bouygues Telecom and BBox (mobile phone operators) and, from this year, Europcar (a Paris-based car rental company that also operates National and Alamo in Europe).

Voeckler struggles to retain his yellow jersey on stage 13 of the 2004 Tour. Lance Armstrong won the stage (and the overall title), but Voeckler held onto the lead after this day. AFP PHOTO JOEL SAGET

It was only because Voeckler (who had a 2011 contract ready to sign with Cofidis) said he would stick with Bernaudeau that the French team manager was able to clinch a multi-million-dollar deal with Europcar on the very last day for registering elite pro teams with the UCI last October. “We’re going through a difficult economic period,” Bernaudeau said at the time. “Thomas allowed us to find a solution.”

Voeckler has given instant payback to the sponsor. In February, he won the opening stage of the Mediterranean Tour after instigating one of the typical long-distance breakaways he favors, and he then took the overall title at the Tour du Haut Var, clinching it with an audacious downhill attack on the final stage.

In March, he won two stages of Paris-Nice at the end of long, opportunistic breakaways, but his Pro Continental team didn’t get an invitation to ride Milan-San Remo on March 19. Instead, Voeckler raced the following day’s GP Cholet, the year’s first French Cup race, where he pulled off a brilliant solo win; after his team wound-up the pace, he surged clear inside the 3km marker and held off a 70-strong pack to win by less than a second.

Runner-up Tony Gallopin of FDJ said, “What a stud! He was the super-favorite and still did his stuff.” But Voeckler, who pulled of a similar, if shorter, winning attack at last September’s GP de Québec in Canada, put that fifth 2011 victory in perspective by saying: “Even if I’m happy to win, this isn’t Milan-San Remo. I wasn’t jumping clear on the Poggio.”

Voeckler, in his French champion's kit, wins the fourth stage of the 2011 Paris-Nice

In the only major classic he rode in April, Voeckler finished in the peloton from which Tom Boonen took the victory at Ghent-Wevelgem, and he was prominent for much of the Tour of Flanders before arriving with the 33-strong pack that sprinted for 13th place. The Frenchman then took ninth overall at the Circuit de la Sarthe and fourth at the Tour du Finistère before heading to Italy’s Giro del Trentino.

After a short opening time trial (won by Team RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden), Voeckler saw that his only opportunity for a stage win was on the next day’s finish at Ledro Bezzecca, which featured a 12.5km, 4.5-percent climb before a gentle 5.5km uphill to the line. After an earlier break was brought back on the main part of the climb, Voeckler made a strong counterattack 7km from the finish; only Lampre-ISD’s Michele Scarponi, honing his form for the Giro d’Italia, could match the Europcar’s leader’s burst.

“When I saw Scarponi was there,” Voeckler told L’Équipe, “I took a little breather. Then I took only three or four pulls to keep some energy ahead of the sprint. I knew that he was mainly looking at the GC.” That was a smart decision because the stage ended with Scarponi taking the overall lead after losing the sprint to Voeckler, who said, “I know the next two stages are too mountainous for me.” Even so, he finished Trentino in seventh overall, 1:12 behind overall winner Scarponi.

Voeckler’s six wins put him on a par with Alberto Contador as this season’s second-most prolific winner (Gilbert is first with seven after his Brabançonne-Amstel-Flèche-Liège quadruple); and with two teammates contributing three more 2011 victories Europcar is on a par with the average ProTeam with nine overall wins. Whether that will equate to his team obtaining a UCI ProTeam license in 2012 is a question that won’t be answered for another six months. But for now, Europcar and Voeckler are riding high.

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