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Tour de France analysis: Is Thomas Voeckler a genuine contender for 2012?

While France has been celebrating the achievement of Thomas Voeckler holding the yellow jersey for ten days – matching his feat of 2004, but with a smaller initial lead and more tough stages to negotiate – there has always been an acceptance that he was living on borrowed time, even as he continued to surpass everyone’s expectations (including his own) day after day in the mountains. However, as he has continued to redefine the boundaries of his talent, one hopeful question has started to form in many people’s minds. Could Thomas Voeckler win the 2012 Tour de France?

Even the man himself has started to ask himself the question, saying after stage 17:

I never thought I’d be able to ride for GC and be at this level in the third week of the Tour de France. I’ll have to think about that in the future.

The tantalising prospect of a first French winner since the last of Bernard Hinault‘s five wins in 1985 is a compelling one for the home nation. Other than a string of wins in the King of the Mountains competition, they have had little to celebrate in the general classification since Richard Virenque became the last French rider to finish in a podium place in 1997. (And he was promptly discredited the following year in the Festina doping affair.)

But is Voeckler’s outstanding performance on one of the toughest and most varied Tour routes in memory really a sign of the late blossoming of a genuine contender? Or have a variety of other factors flattered to deceive him? Let’s have a look at the arguments both for and against.

Tommy the contender

Voeckler has always been a rider of prodigious talent

1. He’s an accomplished and mature all-round talent

At 32, Voeckler is arguably at the peak of his career in terms of physical condition and experience. He is a good climber, if not necessarily in the top bracket of mountain specialists, as he has demonstrated repeatedly this year. He is one of the best descenders in the peloton. He is vastly experienced at the Tour. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he has a battling mentality which all the top Grand Tour riders must have.

His age need not count against him. He will have just turned 33 when next year’s Tour starts. Lance Armstrong was approaching his 34th birthday when he won the last of his seven Tours. And Carlos Sastre was 33 when he won his only Tour in 2008.

2. He’s a winner

Despite being neither a true climber nor a sprinter, Voeckler has won races consistently throughout his career. His eight wins so far in 2011 already matches his best year ever, and includes two victories at the prestigious Paris-Nice race. As a puncheur, a rider capable of short bursts of acceleration on moderately steep hills, he has had to rely on his wits and ability to read the tactics of a race as much as his talent. A winning mentality is something Voeckler has in abundance.

Kern

3. His team is missing its best climber

Pierre Rolland has done a superb job of shepherding Voeckler through the high mountains, never leaving his side and moving to the front to pace his man to the finish when needed. But how much stronger might he have been with Christophe Kern to support him? Kern was in the form of his life before abandoning on stage five, having won the French time trial championship and claimed a mountain stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. Kern should hopefully be back next year.

4. He’s French

It’s a glib statement, but don’t dismiss it. It counts for something in the month of July, and that extra 1% could make all the difference in a race which has in recent years been decided by small margins – four of the last five races have seen the top two separated by less than a minute.

Tommy the pretender

1. He has benefitted from a lack of attacks in the mountains

Although he has had to negotiate a number of particularly challenging stages since taking the yellow jersey, Voeckler has benefitted hugely from a set of circumstances which have seen him able to ride a steady tempo on many of the most difficult climbs, as he does not have the capability to accelerate sharply on the steepest gradients. Setting aside the flat stages 10, 11 and 15, here is how he has performed in the yellow jersey:

  • Stage 12: Samuel Sánchez and Jelle Vanendert disappeared up the road to contest the win, but the only big attack from the yellow jersey group did not arrive until the 2.5km mark when Fränk Schleck flew away. Voeckler was ferried up by Rolland, limiting his loss to Schleck to 40 seconds and conceding smaller amounts to everyone else.
  • Stage 13: All the contenders were happy to cruise in 7½ minutes behind Thor Hushovd’s winning break.
  • Stage 14: The Schleck brothers launched a handful of half-hearted attacks, but the yellow jersey group essentially rode tempo up to Plateau de Beille. Voeckler finished with the favourites.
  • Stage 16: Coped well with the medium mountains. He lost around 20 seconds to Evans, Contador and Sánchez on the final descent, finished with Fränk Schleck and gained time on Basso and Andy Schleck.
  • Stage 17: Dealt comfortably with the first and second category climbs but pushed too hard on the final difficult descent, costing him 27 seconds.
  • Stage 18: Unable to follow Andy Schleck’s stage-winning attack or contribute to the chase until the final kilometre. Everyone was tired at the line, but Voeckler looked most exhausted of all, collapsing over his handlebars barely able to breathe, despite having received a free tow from Cadel Evans up the Galibier.
  • Stage 19: Yo-yoed off the back of the lead group created by Alberto Contador’s early attack, and although he regained position at the base of Alpe d’Huez, he faded and finished 3:22 down, conceding the yellow jersey.

Through the Pyrenees and Alps, Voeckler has rarely been put under major stress – he had simply not been given many opportunities to crack, until yesterday. When he has been pressurised – on both climbs and his favoured descents – he has routinely lost chunks of time. A true yellow jersey contender cannot afford to regularly lose 20-30 seconds, particularly one who lacks the capacity to regain ground in the time trials.

2. His team is too weak

Even allowing for the loss of Kern, Europcar remains one of the weaker teams in the race – let’s not forget they are only a wild-card entrant – with a relatively small budget. They – in particular Pierre Rolland – have performed minor miracles to support Voeckler as much as they have, but they lack a powerhouse such as Jens Voigt or Bernhard Eisel to push them through a three-week race. If Voeckler is to contend, he will need additional firepower.

Van Den Broeck was just one of several GC contenders forced to abandon

3. He has benefitted from a weakened field this year

Bradley Wiggins, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Klöden, Janez Brajkovič, Chris Horner – each of them genuine top ten if not podium contenders – all retired in what has been a surprisingly attritional race for the big names this year. Contador has had niggling injuries and the fatigue of a gruelling Giro in his legs. Ivan Basso has been compromised by his training accident in May. Can Voeckler rely on the stars aligning so perfectly again?

4. He needs to curb his instincts

Ever the puncheur, Voeckler’s natural instinct is to attack and to follow the attacks of others. That’s fine when your main target is stage wins, but if you are playing the long game you need to be more selective with your efforts. Too often, Voeckler has been the first rider to cover his rivals’ moves instead of waiting for someone else to respond. And when the pressure is on, as we saw on the descent from the Côte de Pramartino on stage 17 or yesterday on the Galibier, a true contender needs to know when discretion is the better part of valour and settle for sitting in the pack. In this respect, Voeckler is a bit naive – but he knows that and accepts he needs to improve in this area, which is a good start.

5. He is a mediocre time-trialist

The current trend towards less time-trialling works in his favour, but this remains a distinct weakness for Voeckler, who has never been more than average against the clock. For instance, when competing on this afternoon’s time trial course at the Critérium du Dauphiné – albeit on a wet day – he finished 3:18 down on winner Tony Martin, and more relevantly 3:07 and 1:58 behind Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans respectively. If he is not a credible attacking threat in the high mountains, he needs to improve his time-trialling significantly. Tour winners and podium finishers are generally among the best at one or the other, if not both.

And the verdict is …?

Much though I have always admired Thomas Voeckler’s heart and his not inconsiderable ability as a puncheur and breakaway artist, I don’t see him as a credible race winner – or even a podium finisher – next year. He is certainly capable of a top 10 finish, however. A lack of top-level climbing ability will always hold him back when the racing reaches its greatest intensity in the high mountains.

Coppel is a highly-rated prospect

Indeed, Voeckler may not even be the top French prospect for next year, as a new generation of promising young riders threatens to step up to the next level. 24-year old Jérôme Coppel (Saur-Sojasun) is widely held to be the bright young hope of French cycling. He currently sits in 14th place overall, having ridden solidly if unspectacularly throughout. Still only 25, Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ) is one position and 53 seconds behind Coppel, having led the white jersey competition for two days. Both rode well on Alpe d’Huez yesterday.

And, of course, Europcar’s Pierre Rolland won on the Alpe to catapult himself into both the white jersey and the top ten – a remarkable double achievement given that his primary role has been that of Voeckler’s bodyguard in the mountains. But then Rolland – two months Coppel’s junior – is not a new name on the French scene, having made people sit up and take notice when he won the mountains classification at the Dauphiné in 2008, aged just 21.

Is French cycling on the up again? I would certainly say so, as evidenced by the presence of no fewer than five French riders in the top 15 as of this morning (Jean-Christophe Péraud, at 34, is the grand-daddy of the group.) However, I strongly suspect that 26 years of hurt waiting for the next Hinault will not come to an end next year. But Voeckler – not to mention Coppel, Jeannesson and Rolland – will be terrific fun to watch, no matter what.

Links: Tour de France official website, Steephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

9 Responses to Tour de France analysis: Is Thomas Voeckler a genuine contender for 2012?

  1. txtmstrjoe says:

    As much as Voeckler may not have a true champion’s transcendent physical abilities at his very best, he has earned my admiration for having a true champion’s guts.

    In this way, he reminds me a lot of Nigel Mansell. I never thought Nige had the kind of natural ability as Ayrton Senna or Alain Prost did; I don’t think he even approached Nelson Piquet, who is a bit underrated these days. But Mansell’s courage and willingness to fight is unquestionable.

    I’m not a Mansell fan, to be honest, but Thomas Voeckler may be my favorite rider from this year’s Tour. He’ll always have my respect and my admiration.

    • Tim says:

      It’s a good comparison, Joe.

      Voeckler has been a favourite of mine since that Tour of 2004, and I’ve followed his career with interest. It’s hard not to love his exuberance, even though I fear it may ultimately cost him a podium place.

      He will always be a champion for me, regardless of how he does. I just don’t think he is a three-week race contender. Like Gilbert, he lives to attack all-out and that’s not really conducive to a GC tilt. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, and that’s the beauty of the Grand Tours – there’s room for all types of riders to thrive, from Cavendish to Hushovd/Boasson Hagen to Gilbert/Voeckler to Schleck Jr and Evans. That’s one of the reasons I love this sport so much.

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  3. Sheree says:

    Have to agree with you on this one Tim, Voeckler will never win the Tour de France. However, there is a promosing crop of Frenchmen, one of whom might develop into a potential Tour de France winner.

    • Tim says:

      I liked the look of Pierre Rolland. It would be interesting to see what he could do riding to his own agenda. Anyone who can ride away from Contador and Sanchez the way he did on Alpe d’Huez must have something about him.

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