Blazin' Saddles

Voeck ‘n Roll

Blazin' Saddles

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Forget Alberto Contador and the Schlecks for a moment - it's
high time Saddles paid some attention to the real stars of stage 12: Thomas
Voeckler and Pierre Rolland.

What's not to like about Europcar and their plucky
Pro-Continental gathering of French mid-range rouleurs and Tour debutants all
assembled around a baby-faced, never-say-die, short chap from Alsace called
'Petit Blanc'?

Everyone thought it was curtains for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau's
team when Bouygues pulled the sponsorship plug last winter - but from nowhere
Europcar came knocking and it's been all smiles ever since.

Besides an excellent website (Saddles should know - he pens
their race reports every evening), the team has perhaps the slickest jersey in
the peloton, one which looks even classier when juxtaposed against the yellow
jersey that has rightfully covered the shoulders of Voeckler for four days and
counting.

By the laws of logic, Voeckler should not be in the maillot
jaune any more, and yet he rode on Thursday not like a man desperately trying
to cling on to the yellow jersey - but a man with his heart set on taking it
all the way to Paris.

This won't happen, of course, but no one can deny that for a
day - and not just any day, one of the most demanding of this race so far -
Voeckler and Rolland rode as if they were a race favourite alongside his
faithful lieutenant.

And look at the huge scare which hit Europcar on the first
descent of the day - an incident which saw two of their riders hit the deck and
Voeckler overshoot a bend before slamming into a parked car.

As it was, it became a mere blip for both Voeckler and his
team: the race leader got back on his bike, regained his composure, and rode
into the valley before swapping his custom-made yellow set of wheels for his
regulation bike; Yohann Gene dusted himself off and, despite being about as
much a climber as Tyler Farrar, still paced his leader most of the way up the
Tourmalet before finally succumbing to fatigue.

Can you imagine the furore had that crash involved one of
the race favourites in yellow?

Had it been Andy Schleck who crashed while in yellow he
would have hurt a wrist, dropped a chain and spent an eternity trying to figure
out how to put it back on.

Had it been Frank Schleck who crashed in yellow he would
have probably broken a collarbone before getting Fabian Cancellara to call a
truce and shorten the stage.

Had it been Alberto Contador who crashed in yellow he would
have hurt his knee and things wouldn't have been so, erm, bueno.

Had it been Cadel Evans there no doubt would have been a chin-related
injury which would have led to a total implosion of self belief.

Had it been Ivan Basso there would have been a grisly facial
injury, close-up pictures of which would have no doubt be soon doing the rounds
on Twitter.

Had it been Levi Leipheimer, the American would have - given
his luck - crashed through the windscreen of the vehicle, broken his nose and
been forced to finish the stage while concussed.

Had it been Andreas Kloden he would have cut his elbow and
lost 8:26 at the finish - ah, that is what happened.

And had it been Robert Gesink in yellow it wouldn't have
mattered because he would have been 15 minutes off the back of the pack
already.

You get the point: Saddles has a bit of a Voeckler crush.
But it's hard not to. Granted, Thursday's ride lacked the drama of his wondrous
defiance of Lance Armstrong on the Plateau de Beille in 2004. But in many
respects it was all the more impressive, because it showed a maturity in
Voeckler's riding - and that of the young Rolland - which made all the GC
contenders look decidedly ordinary. Indeed, for much of the final climb, the
Europcar duo were bossing both Contador and Andy Schleck.

Back in 2004, Voeckler crossed the line on the Plateau de
Beille with a huge smile and a shake of a fist; seven years on, he had the
luxury of being able to ride to Luz Ardiden arm in arm with his team-mate
Rolland. And with Friday's big test - the Col de l'Aubisque - coming some way
from the finish, there's a big chance that Voeckler will ride once again to
Plateau de Beille on Sunday in the maillot jaune.

France may still be in search of their first win this year -
but that performance will have made their Bastille Day, and their Tour.

As for Contador and the Schlecks, Saddles will say this: if
Bertie shared the same temperament as Mark Cavendish, then he would have said
something like, "bueno, only the uneducated would write me off".

Yes, the Spaniard looks a shade of the rider who has won his
previous six Grand Tours, but last year in the Tour he lost 10 seconds to Andy
Schleck on the first day in the mountains - and this year he lost just three
more.

The way Leopard Trek have been celebrating, it's as if
they've just discovered a cure for saddle sore. But were any real time gains
made on this triumphant day? Andy Schleck's form is clearly not that much
better than Contador's or he wouldn't have allowed himself to be outrun by
Voeckler for most of the final climb.

Anyway, if the Schlecks think that's enough to win them the
Tour, then so be it; let Frank climb up above Andy into the top bunk-bed
tonight as top dog because, you know what, Saddles is far from convinced. They
should be doing their homework better and have gone for the jugular for
Contador will only get stronger in this race.

In fact, if the Spaniard simply realises that his vegan diet
is not doing his cycling any good, then maybe he can turn things round sooner
rather than later. Get a bit of meat down his throat, that should sort him out
- and aren't there some good butchers in this neck of the Pyrenean woods?

Gaffe of the Day:
Unaware of the Prix Jacques Goddet atop the Tourmalet, Geraint Thomas let
Jeremy Roy through
to cross the summit in pole position - and trouser a cool
5,000 euros.

Plat du Jour:
Schleck sandwich with a Contador filling - ingredients: aged, well hung but
slightly tired-looking beef between two thin slices of white bread. Served with
green lettuce a la Basso and totally drenched in yellow Moutarde a la Voeckler.

Word of the Day:
Schluck - n. downfall masquerading as fortune, usually comes in pairs.

Uses for... Laurens ten
Dam
: Cave man extra in a dinosaur film.

Peloton prattle:
Which team bus is rather windy on the inside?

Quote of the Day:
"No wonder he (Roy) went for it. 5,000 euros - you can do a lot with that,
buy a lot of beers with that." Geraint Thomas

Stage 12 prediction:
Uran, Barredo and Dumoulin to attack early; Cunego for the win; one of the
Schlecks and Contador to crash on the descent of the Aubisque; Voeckler to
retain his yellow jersey; FDJ to take a day off; Gesink to retire.