Thomas Voeckler was the popular winner in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, outwitting breakaway companions in a tough finish.

Words by Lionel Birnie in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine

Wednesday July 11, 2012

The cliché is that Thomas Voeckler is a plucky trier. It’s a reputation forged by two lengthy spells in the maillot jaune, in 2004 and again last year. But Voeckler is not plucky, or lucky. Far from it. His guile is extraordinary and sense of timing immaculate, as he demonstrated during a tense few kilometres at the end of the tenth stage to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.

The French rider did not win the stage because he took a punt, he won it because he was able to weigh up dozens of permutations and make his decision quickly. He must have ice cold blood in his veins because it was not as if he was up against a bunch of no-hopers.

His four companions were Luis Leon Sanchez, another rider who, in the nicest possible sense can operate with the cunning of a confidence trickster at the end of a race, Jens Voigt who has plenty of brains to go with his brawn, Michele Scarponi and Dries Devenyns.

But Voeckler bluffed, cajoled and then jumped them with just over a kilometre to go to net a stage victory that goes a long way to making up for the fact that he is not a factor in the overall picture this year.

It was probably the wave of his hand to Sanchez when Devenyns attacked with 3.3 kilometres to go that won it. Sanchez loves to play dead in a finale like that. Instead of closing the gaps and making the running, he likes to follow, draw them in and then hit them, much like Voeckler did. By forcing the Spaniard to chase down Devenyns, Voeckler tilted the odds in his favour. After all, Voigt was surely paying for the effort he made to ride across the gap after the descent of the Col de Richemond climb towards the end.

The first stage after a rest day can often be a cagey affair but with Bradley Wiggins in such a commanding position, it was obvious that either Cadel Evans or Vincenzo Nibali would have to try something. Those who have studied their riding styles could have predicted that they would save their aggression until the descent of the Col du Grand Colombier, which came 151 kilometres into the 194.5-kilometre stage.

And that is precisely what happened, which rendered the opening two-thirds of this stretch into the Jura slightly soporific, although the beauty and majesty of the Grand Colombier more than made up for the absence of a battle on the snaking col. The aerial shots were breath-taking – the Tour at its cinematic best – with the road looking like a neatly coiled piece of grey ribbon draped across the green mountain side.

It was a good job it was beautiful to watch because the race itself was slow to kick off. A group of 25 riders got clear early on and built a lead of more than six minutes. The five characters who would shape the final moments of the stage were there, so too was Peter Sagan, whose role would become apparent later on. The others were no threat overall and had varying hopes of success on the stage, given the presence of the hors categorie Grand Colombier.

Team Sky set a strong, even pace all the way up the mountain, with the familiar pattern once again playing out. Edvald Boasson Hagen passed the baton to Richie Porte and he, Michael Rogers and Chris Froome stacked up in front of, and in Froome’s case behind Wiggins in protective formation.

It was on the mountain that Voeckler made his move to force a split in the group of 25. Five men got away with him – Scarponi, Sandy Casar, Sanchez, Devenyns and Jean-Christophe Peraud. Shortly after that Sanchez attacked on his own and spent five kilometres in the lead. They rode aggressively until only Voeckler, Sanchez, Scarponi and Devenyns were left. The others all fell back. Only one – Voigt – refused to throw in the towel, although he was largely forgotten and discounted.

In the slender group of favourites, Jurgen Van den Broeck attacked near the top but was immediately marked by Porte. The Lotto-Belisol man had another go as they crested the summit which sparked some nervous jousting as soon as they started to go downhill. Wiggins wanted to follow Evans down the other side.

Perhaps he chose the wrong wheel, because it was Nibali, a master descender, who rode with such fearless purpose, opening a gap of a few metres, then stretching it a little more, cutting the corners in a way that Wiggins could not, or would not, dare.

And before we knew it, Nibali was away and putting some serious time into Wiggins. Lying fourth overall, 2-23 behind, the Italian knew he had to get his lead up to a minute or so if he had any chance of making it stick.

The gap did grow and as soon hooked up with his Liquigas team-mate, Sagan, who then helped set the pace on the flatter road at the bottom before burying himself on the 7.2-kilometre, third-category Col de Richemond.

At one point the lead was just over a minute but Sky had it under control. Porte, riding so strongly and for so long, reeled in the man they nickname The Shark. It was a back-breaking effort but with 21 kilometres of the stage to go, Nibali was caught.

It had been an exciting period of the race and a reminder that Sky’s might on the climbs is all very well but that they will be put under pressure elsewhere.

Then Jurgen Van den Broeck, who lost time when his chain jumped off as they approached La Planche des Belles Filles on Saturday, attacked with Pierre Rolland. They were considerably less threat to Sky, so they were allowed to go.

Up ahead, the four leaders – Voeckler, Scarponi, Sanchez and Devenyns – must have thought they had the finish to themselves. That was until Voigt powered across the gap and joined them with nine kilometres to go.

After the briefest of breathers, the 40-year-old German attacked. It was audacious stuff. Typical Voigt.

They regrouped and engaged in some light shadow boxing until Devenyns made his move with 3.3 kilometres left. The Belgian looked strong – he had to be considering the size of gear he was turning over.

The run-in was a false flat which drained the power from Devenyns’ legs. Voeckler waited until he sensed the others were vulnerable and then he attacked hard, hugging the left-hand curb as if he thought he might be able to make himself disappear from view.

Sanchez left his counter move too late and Scarponi waited even later but by then Voeckler knew victory belonged to him, to Europcar and to France.

A few stragglers from the initial break separated the leaders from the overall favourites. Wiggins marked Evans, who thrashed about like a man trying to free himself from a headlock but without success.

Sky looked ominously powerful and unflappable but the reassuring thing for the coming days was that the others were forced to think.

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  • Simon E

    Thanks Lionel. I was afraid Voeckler’s persistence in pushing at the front would mean he didn’t have enough left at the end. I too thought Devenyns had gone at the right time but that slo-mo finish was nail-biting and almost comical. To out-fox Sanchez is no easy task, as you say.

    In response to Clare’s comment: I expect you are welcome here if you stay on topic. If you don’t like Orica’s mode of business then post about it in a suitable article or discussion. Most of us come to CS for the cycling.

  • clare alison davies

    I didn’t have the time to watch the whole stage, but I saw the last 10 killermetres and really enjoyed. Also the podium interview with Paul Sherwen on the hoof interpreting. Brilliant.

    Well done Tommy V. Lighting it up for France!

    And if this comment is published I will know that I have found a home for the rest of the tour. I’ve been thrown off the Guardian website because I suggested that Orica have spent a lot of money and are a multi-billion dollar business dealing in explosives and pollutants. Am I still welcome here?