It’s hard to believe really, that almost a decade has passed since famous French driver Thomas Voeckler raced through the history books, capturing the yellow jersey for the second time and keeping it on for a full 10 days. But as the Tour de France faces the exhausting Puy Mary during stage 13, Voeckler’s 2011 epic resonates.
Although Voeckler was never considered one of the strongest pilots in the peloton, he was revered as one of the smartest. Voeckler had, what some call, “the science of racing”. And he used it perfectly that day.
“I remember at the team meeting I asked all the runners to neutralize all the attacks for the first 50 kilometers, just cover the attacks by not shooting,” he said. Velonews during the Tour de France this week. “It’s something I rarely do, but I knew there was a big climb about 50 kilometers from the race and I really wanted to go.
The stage from Issoire to Saint-Flour started quickly, many riders realizing that the stage was perfect for a breakaway. And during the whole first hour of the race, there were non-stop attacks. But it was Voeckler’s move that succeeded, as he parted ways with five other riders – Luis León Sánchez, Juan Antonio Flecha, Johnny Hoogerland, Sandy Casar and Niki Terpstra.
And by crossing the Puy Mary halfway through the race, their gap widened. “I had to make a decision,” recalls Voeckler. “I was the best placed driver in the group. Should I try on the yellow jersey or should I try the stage victory? I had to make a decision, not knowing if either would work.
After discussing the two options with his team manager Europcar, Voeckler opted to ride for yellow and therefore took the majority of the draws knowing that he would have little left for the sprint. “Thor Hushovd started in yellow that day. But when I heard that his team was chasing and not getting time back, I understood we could stay away.
Then, just 35 kilometers from the finish, a France Television car passed the group on one of the countless narrow roads to be found in the rustic Auvergne region of central France. But in passing, he grazed Flecha, sending him instantly to the ground, while Hoogerland was catapulted out of the road and into barbed wire fences. Voeckler, who was shooting up front, was also hit by Flecha, but he managed to stay upright. It was an unforgettable moment of misfortune in the history of the Tour, and we still remember it today.
“Flecha’s bike hit me in the tendon. It really hurt but it didn’t destabilize me. Personally, I would have preferred to finish in a group of five because I wasn’t racing for the stage victory. I was just interested in taking the time and getting the jersey.
However, as the remaining riders climbed to Saint-Flour, they were almost four minutes ahead. Sanchez won the stage, but Voeckler won the yellow jersey by almost two minutes. And that turned out to be the start of his second 10-day yellow run, following a similar effort in 2004. In many ways, those two yellow tenures serve as bookends for a long career, which finally completed in 2017.
“It’s funny, when I think back to my two terms in yellow, the only thing that is the same is that they both lasted 10 days. The biggest difference in 2011 was that I was much more experienced. In 2004, I didn’t really understand what was going on. But in 2011, I was able to manage the yellow jersey and also savor it.
Friday’s stage 13 of course promises to be very different since the race ends for the first time at the top of Puy Mary. “There are several roads that lead to the top of Puy Mary”, explains Tour de France race director Thierry Gouvenou. “But the one we’re doing this year is by far the most difficult. There are some really steep terrain.
This year, Voeckler will be in the race, but in the back of a motorcycle where he serves as special race commentator for France Television.
“I edited it a few weeks ago for France Télévision,” Voeckler added. “Honestly you could have a breakaway or a real mano-a-mano with the favorites. But let me tell you, the last two kilometers are really tough. It’s just very steep with no place to recover or even breathe. There will certainly be time gaps among the favorites. Someone could easily lose up to a minute. It is obvious!