Tour de France - Voeckler brilliance lights up mountains again
Blazin' Saddles marvels at Thomas Voeckler's brilliant Tour de France stage 16 win - and his equally impressive array of facial expressions.
Warning: this blog contains dangerous levels of Thomas Voeckler panache. Reader discretion is advised.
If you're not partial to a piece of Tommy V or Team Europcar then there's really no point reading beyond this point. Then again, if you're not a fan of Voeckler or Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's boys in green then you might as well never come back to these hallowed pages again because, quite frankly, we don't want your type hanging around.
(Indeed, if this is the case, you should probably take a long hard look at yourself in the mirror and try and figure out how you can become a better person).
Unlike his rivals Remi di Gregorio and Frank Schleck, Voeckler sure does like a good Tour rest day. Last week, the 33-year-old veteran with the dodgy knee roared back after a troubled opening phase of the race with a virtuoso win in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine the day after the Tour's first day off. A week later, he did just the same – but with even more gusto.
Europcar's top dogs, it seems, are taking it in turns winning the Tour's most prestigious stages. That's four out of the last five mountain stages snared by one of the peloton's poorest outfits (in the fiscal sense only), with Voeckler and Pierre Rolland neck-and-neck on two apiece.
Alpe d'Huez, Col du Colombier, Croix de Fer, Madeleine, Toussuire, Aubisque, Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin, Col de Peyresourde... two men have conquered these fabled climbs and run off with the spoils – and in quite extraordinary fashion.
Voeckler's latest audacious coup started out as a quest to move up in the mountains standings, and ended up with the Frenchman seizing both the win and the polka dot jersey in sweltering heat after crossing every peak in pole position.
Unlike stage 15 before the rest day – won by Voeckler's close friend Pierrick Fedrigo – the start of stage 16 saw a break form quicker than you could say "Xipamide diuretic poisoning".
Voeckler was key from the outset, riding a high tempo on the front as he began to treat the spectators to the full elasticity of his wonderfully malleable face. Showing off an astonishing array of trademark grimaces, Voeckler ran the gamut of virtually every possible facial frolic – from gurning to eye-popping, lip-smacking to gasping, swallowing to nasal-wrinkling.
Next to him Laurens ten Dam, a modern day caveman if ever there was one, dribbled a long-line of spit and phlegm onto his handlebars – much like an over-heated Beethoven, the beloved St Bernard dog.
Following in their wake, beetroot-red Chris Anker Sorensen pedalled away, mouth agape, with that curious knock-kneed style that makes him look like an extraordinarily prolific Danish pensioner out for a ride.
Three of the peloton's most expressive men in one package: this was the real race – not the dull, monotonous Skyride clogging up the roads six or so minutes downstream.
On the Tourmalet, Voeckler attacked with countryman Brice Feillu – whose distinct lack of facial vigour contrasted with that of a man who, were he not a cyclist, could have made a tidy buck as a mime, in a circus or on a Broadway stage.
The pair talked – with Voeckler outlining his desire to take all the mountain points – but mainly Voeckler talked to himself.
With no race radio, Voeckler provided his own soundtrack. It looked as if he was having an internal discussion but out in the open in front of millions of people. Talking to yourself – while normally frowned upon in public – is clearly an under-rated tactic when riding up huge hills.
How enlightening would it be to get a transcription of Voeckler's mountain monologues? Saddles couldn't help but think they would be similar to the split personality disorder of another pasty creature with green hues – Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
"The sun burnses. We wants it. We needs it. Must … have … the … precious," Saddles imagined Smeagol Voeckler saying to himself out loud, before turning to Samuel Dumoulin, the first of the break to be cast away, and saying: "Leave now and never come back... stupid fat Hobbit."
Lucky Bernaudeau wasn't on the radio or who could imagine what might have been going on in Voeckler's head? "Bad master!" "But master's my friend." "You don't have any friends. Nobody likes you." "Master looks after us." "Master tricksed us. Master betrayed us! Must kill nasty master!" And so on.
Back to reality, and like a living medieval gargoyle on wheels, Voeckler plugged away up the Peyresourde all on his own, using his tongue as if it were a third pedal. Bandy legged Sorensen followed but had no answer.
It was gripping stuff – and all the more enjoyable knowing that Voeckler was riding 'au naturel', not just with no radio but without a power metre, a heart rate monitor or a speed gizmo on his handlebars (once he even had to drop back to his team car to look at the stage plan).
Voeckler may not have worn the yellow jersey in this Tour de France for another one of his 10-day streaks – but in many ways his performances have been all the more memorable. Considering the first 10 days of the race were a complete write-off, France's favourite rider has done remarkably well to turn things round.
Two wins and a third place, plus the very real chance of wearing the polka dot jersey into Paris and mounting the podium on the Champs Elysees he came so close to tasting last July – for someone who almost missed the Tour because of a knee complaint, it is nothing short of extraordinary.
What's more, this is Tommy Voeckler – Tommy Clear Water ("eau claire") – a rider for whom doping has never and will never be an option.
"There aren’t enough superlatives to use for what Thomas has achieved," said kind master Bernaudeau after another precious win for his team. "This is a guy who just loves cycling and bike racing and he loves it with his heart. Today it’s cycling that has won. What he has achieved is huge – and to do it in the manner in which he did is incredible. He’s an ambassador to cycling. He’s not just any old rider – he’s a man of incredible values. He is one of the good guys – and cycling needs him."
Sure as hell we need him. With Vincenzo Nibali the only rider to try and disrupt the monotony of the Team Sky machine – and an ill Cadel Evans reduced to taking Asprin on the Aspin – Wednesday's stage 16 would have been a complete snore-fest without Voeckler's brilliance.
"I am really proud with what I have done because it’s just like the cycling races I used to watch on TV as a boy," said an ecstatic Voeckler. "I am in another dimension at the moment riding the way I think bike races should be ridden. Now my priority is to defend the polka dot jersey and then hopefully my Tour will be over tomorrow night."
These are the kind of quote we want – quotes from the heart and from a true champion. No anger, no swearing, no banalities – just honesty and passion, much like Voeckler the rider. Pierre Rolland, over to you.