MONTEPELLIER, France (VN) — Thomas Voeckler fever is growing across France.
Fans cheered him like a rock star in Limoux at the start of Sunday’s 15th stage and he received a similar hero’s welcome at the finish line five hours later after defending the maillot jaune.
After defending his yellow tunic with unseen panache through the Pyrénées, the Europcar rider is suddenly viewed as France’s best chance of winning the Tour in nearly three decades.
Voeckler is taking it all in stride and he did his best Sunday to try to calm everyone down.
“I have no chance of winning the Tour,” Voeckler said emphatically. “At least not in this life.”
It’s easy to understand France’s growing belief in Voeckler. After decades of foreign domination of “their” national tour, French fans are eager to cheer for one of their own.
No French rider has won the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985. A French rider hasn’t reached the final podium since Richard Virenque in 1997. That’s a long time to wait and French fans and media are fanning the fires of Voeckler fever.
Following his gutsy ride up Plateau de Beille on Saturday, L’Equipe‘s full-page headline across Sunday’s edition read, “A champion, a true champion.”
Voeckler, however, seemed intent on trying to play down the expectations. After crossing the finish line safely in the bunch to defend his 1:49 lead to Frank Schleck (Leopard-Trek), he patiently tried to tell everyone to take it easy.
“It’s not a question if I would like to win the Tour. Of course I would like to win, everyone here would like to win the Tour,” he said. “I do not want to lie. Sure, I could just say it, yes, I can win the Tour! But I am realistic. I know the Alps. I know how hard they are. I know I will suffer.”
Those words might quell some of the growing anticipation, but a French rider hasn’t been in this position so deep in the Tour in a long time.
And Voeckler’s defense through the Pyrénées, when many expected the GC favorites to shed him almost as an afterthought, has only heightened expectations that he could carry the yellow jersey all the way to L’Alpe d’Huez. With the Tour going up the “easy” side of the Galibier in stage 18, climbing the 21 switchbacks in yellow could be a very realistic possibility. And if he ends the stage still in yellow atop the Alpe, things could get very complicated for the other GC favorites.
“He’s still there. He was impressive in the Pyrénées,” Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis told VeloNews. “I think he could end up on the podium.”
Voeckler is in an enviable position. He leads Fränk Schleck by 1:49 and three-time Tour champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) by four minutes. With no one able or willing to stamp his dominance on the GC, Voeckler has been able to exploit the hesitation among the favorites and slip into the Tour’s second rest day firmly in yellow.
His Europcar team is also doing a smart job of measuring its efforts and has counted on the collective interests of the peloton to help save its energy. In Saturday’s stage to Plateau de Beille, Leopard-Trek took over at the front of the peloton late in the stage. On Sunday, HTC was leading the charge to set up the sprint. Each day, Europcar could save a little energy that will come in handy in the final week of the Tour in the Alps.
Things will change dramatically once the Tour turns into the Alps. The Schlecks will need to attack, not only against Cadel Evans and Contador, but also against Voeckler. Kim Andersen, sport director at Leopard-Trek, says Voeckler’s a problem for everyone.
“It’s not just us who has to worry about Voeckler. There are others who are even further behind,” Andersen told VeloNews. “We shall see how he does in the Alps. He surprised everyone in the Pyrénées, but we see how he does in the longer, faster climbs in the Alps.”
Voeckler knows he will see the sharp end of the attacks in the Alps and says he harbors no illusions about his chances to carry yellow all the way to Paris. His career-best Tour result was 18th, when he bravely defended the yellow jersey for 10 days against the gauntlet of Lance Armstrong at his height.
Voeckler admits that two more summit finishes — at the Galibier followed by L’Alpe d’Huez — and a 42.5km individual time trial in Grenoble will likely spell his doom.
“If I say it with any honesty at all, I have no chance to win the Tour this year,” Voeckler said. “There is still one week to race and this year’s Tour was designed to be won in the final week. I know how hard it will be.”
But even Voeckler couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement.
“I did it (Saturday), so maybe it’s possible to do it in the Alps,” he said. “I didn’t expect that I was capable of what I did Saturday. It’s not normal what I was able to do. That gives me a big motivation.”
Anyone who has followed Voeckler’s career knows he’s the Frenchman who fights until the bitter end. Maybe this time, he might just have enough to pull off a miracle. The French certainly seem ready to believe.