All those who expected a tough battle for the mountains jersey on the Tour de France's ultimate mountain stage on Thursday were not let down with the day's racing. Mountain classification leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was truly challenged by second-placed Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) in what unfolded as an exciting duel over four of five categorised climbs, finally won by the Frenchman, who is now certain of his podium spot in Paris on Sunday.
Both the two-time 2012 stage winner Voeckler and his Swedish challenger jumped away in the day's first breakaway on the first ascent, the Col de Menté, and remained on the attack through the penultimate climb of Port de Bales. The Frenchman, who had an initial advantage of four points following yesterday's stage win, marked Kessiakoff closely, but every time the pair approached a KOM summit, Voeckler just had a tad more energy left to outsprint his rival. In this way, the 33-year-old slowly but steadily extended his lead in the mountains competition, and will now wear the polka dot jersey through to Paris due to his insurmountable 11-point advantage.
"I rode with a calculator in my head today, following a precise strategy," Voeckler said at the finish. "In the last climb, I was finally able to slow down and appreciate what I'd done. It may not have been very beautiful, because I stayed in his wheel all the time, which is not my style of racing normally - but in this case, I didn't have a choice. I had to race in a very strategic way instead of showing panache."
Europcar manager Jean-René Bernaudeau was of course delighted with the day's outcome. "Thomas succeeded well in what was a great battle against a particularly tough rival," he said. "We saw that it was a stunning duel between him and his closest adversary as soon as the first climb, and we were afraid we'd experience a very disappointing day. But in the end, it was Thomas who was superior."
Following initial knee problems, which are now resolved, Voeckler's Tour de France will again enter the history books as a great success as he achieved two stage victories as well as taking the overall mountains competition. "If I manage not to crash or anything, I will be on the podium in Paris," he mused. "Last year, I missed out on a podium spot by my own fault, by a strategic mistake on the stage to L'Alpe-d'Huez. I ended up fourth on GC instead of in the top three. This year, I earn one of the distinctive jerseys, and I will be careful in the next three days not to lose that podium spot again."
Voeckler's teammate Pierre Rolland also had a successful day, improving his general classification standing from ninth to eighth. The lean climber was able to remain in the group of favourites around yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins (Sky), and ended up fifth on the stage. "It was my ambition to improve my overall placing again today, as well as to try and help Voeckler. This was the last day I could do something, so I gave it all. Eighth overall after this stage is a decent result, considering all the difficulties I've had earlier in the race."
Rolland was caught in a crash in stage six to Metz and sustained painful injuries. He nevertheless recovered and continued his bid for the overall classification, even winning a stage. "Pierre assumed his role as team leader, he's been a revelation as he was able to rise in status. It wasn't easy for him after the success he's had last year. But he's shown that he's able to do this and that he will continue to get better in the future," Bernaudeau said in praise of the 25-year-old.