PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (VN) — No one was more surprised that Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) kept the yellow jersey Saturday than Voeckler himself.
Many expected Voeckler to sink like a rock when the GC favorites hit the 15.8km beyond-category climb to the finish line, but not only did he hang tough to keep yellow, he was marking the attacks.
Voeckler floated with the overall favorites all the way to the line, crossing the line seventh and not losing one second of his 1:49 lead to Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek).
“I cannot explain it,” Voeckler said in disbelief after getting kisses from the podium girls. “I was very surprised to be with the best riders up the Plateau de Beille climb. I don’t know how far I can go.”
Voeckler will carry the yellow jersey out of the Pyrénées as a very different kind of threat than when he entered the Tour’s first major climbing stages a few days ago.
Many saw the popular Frenchman simply as an opportunist who snagged the yellow jersey with panache in a breakaway to Saint-Flour, but not as a potential threat for the podium.
That’s all changed after three solid days in the Pyrénées. With the GC favorites such as the Schleck brothers, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso all watching each other, Voeckler suddenly becomes a serious problem.
“Voeckler is very impressive. He’s riding beyond everyone’s expectations, so chapeau to him,” Garmin-Cervélo team manager Jonathan Vaughters told VeloNews.
“I think it’s going to be tough for the race favorites to wrestle him out of that jersey. I think they assumed they would get rid of him today. I would imagine he would carry it all the way into the Alps. Who knows? It’s going to be hard to crack him. It reminds me a little bit of the 1990 Tour, with (Claudio) Chiappucci and (Greg) LeMond. It’s going to be really hard to take back that jersey.”
Voeckler’s Europcar team has stepped up nicely to rally around the maillot jaune. Last year’s King of the Mountains champion Anthony Charteau has already said he will sacrifice his personal ambitions to help his teammate and rode in the day’s main breakaway to have a presence up the road. Pierre Rolland was later right with Voeckler up the Plateau de Beille until becoming dislodged with the late-race accelerations. The team promises to go down fighting.
“The team has really impressed me with how well it’s defending the yellow jersey. It gives us wings,” said Europcar Jean-René Bernaudeau. “It was a big ‘save’ today. Now we got into the next part of this Tour. We can carry the jersey into the Alps and who knows, maybe we can defend it at the Galibier and carry the yellow jersey all the way to L’Alpe d’Huez. That would a big dream.”
Voeckler’s dream could become a nightmare for the tightly knotted GC picture. No clear overall favorite emerged after three days of racing across the Pyrénées. The GC “bigs” roll toward Montpellier on Sunday all stacked up between two to four minutes behind the resilient Voeckler.
“It’s unbelievable,” Levi Leipheimer told VeloNews at the line. “I expected him to keep it the other day, but not today. I thought he was suffering the climb before, he didn’t look good. They’re going to have to start factoring him as an overall favorite for sure.”
Could Voeckler become a real threat for overall victory? A French rider hasn’t won the Tour since Bernhard Hinault in 1985 (in an interview with VeloNews last week, Hinault said he doesn’t see any French rider capable of winning the yellow jersey, saying: “Pfft — we’re on vacation here”) and it’s still unrealistic to count Voeckler as a real threat for the maillot jaune in Paris.
But stranger things have happened. What’s sure is that the top favorites will have to start thinking about attacking Voeckler if they want to have any chance to try to claw away the yellow jersey.
“Right now, he has the yellow jersey, so he is the most dangerous,” said Saxo Bank-Sungard team boss Bjarne Riis. “I don’t think (he can keep it to Paris), but if he continues like this, it is a problem, not for just us, but many. The first person to attack is him, that’s for sure.”
The unsettled GC picture could play heavily into Voeckler’s hands. The favorites were attacking each other all the way up Plateau de Beille and Voeckler could ride defensively, marking the wheels and recovering between accelerations that came from the Schleck brothers and later BMC’s Cadel Evans. He wisely sat in when Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) shot clear and crossed the line bumping shoulders with the big guns.
“I was able to follow, but I was really suffering, but that was the same for everyone,” Voeckler said. “The objective today was to keep the yellow jersey. I expected to lose some time today and I thought it would be a question of seconds if I stayed in yellow. I never thought that I would be able to stay with the favorites.”
That’s sure to change in the Alps. On Saturday, Voeckler admitted that the stage played out perfectly for him. A big breakaway went clear early, but there was no real GC threat in the bunch, allowing the Europcar riders to step back and let Leopard-Trek assume responsibility in the stage. And then on the final climb, early jabs from Andy Schleck disrupted the rhythm of the climb, which plays into Voeckler’s hands. He says he reacts better covering moves and then slowing the pace rather than one long, sustained attack over many kilometers.
Another factor that’s helping Voeckler is the growing sense that the 2011 Tour de France is a much cleaner place than it was when he heroically held the jersey for 10 days in 2004. When asked by VeloNews in the post-race press conference how much a factor a cleaner peloton was in helping him stay with the top riders, Voeckler admitted it’s playing a role in his yellow-jersey defense.
“Since I became a pro in 2001, things are much better in cycling. What I’ve learned from experience is that you cannot worry about what anyone else is doing or thinking about maybe this one is doing that, because you end up spending a lot of useless energy,” he said. “But if you want to be objective about it, cycling is cleaner and cleaner. The authorities are doing a good job at cleaning up the sport.”
Outside the peloton, Voeckler fever is growing in France. He receives a hero’s welcome every morning at the stage sign-in podium. He’s enjoying his most successful season ever, with eight victories coming into the 2011 Tour. With yellow-jersey dreams dancing before him, who knows how far Voeckler can go. Even he admits he doesn’t know.
Voeckler left the Pyrénées in a ride fit for the yellow jersey. An official Tour de France helicopter flew him off the summit of Plateau de Beille to rejoin his Europcar teammates at the valley floor.
Whoever gets a helicopter ride off L’Alpe d’Huez next weekend has a very good chance of winning the 2011 Tour. Voeckler would love to be the passenger.