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An ecstatic Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) on the podium after his stage win.
French favourite centre stage at Tour de France once again
Holder of the yellow jersey for ten days in both the 2004 and 2011 Tours, Voeckler's palmares also boasts stage wins in 2009 and 2010 as well as his famous 4th place finish of a year ago, but 2012 had looked to set to be a somewhat darker edition for the Frenchman.
Suffering from a nagging knee injury in the run-up to the Tour that would compromise his bid for the general classification, Voeckler's Europcar team was placed in the eye of a storm on the eve of the race, when it emerged that the squad had been placed under investigation for suspected use of corticosteroids and intravenous vitamin solutions during last year's Tour.
"In my win today, there was a response to that – not revenge, but a response," Voeckler said in his post-race press conference. "All I felt on crossing the line was satisfaction at the victory."
Lying in a lowly 52nd place overall as the day began, Voeckler was part of a large group of riders granted a bon de sortie after 30km. By the time they hit the slopes of the day's main difficulty, the Col du Grand Colombier, the 25-strong break had a lead of 6:20 over the peloton.
"Once we were on the Grand Colombier, I saw I had good legs when I could follow Michele Scarponi," said Voeckler, who went clear with the Lampre-ISD Italian, Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) and Dries Devenyns (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) on the climb, and then jumped clear alone to take the points at the summit.
That was enough to put Voeckler into the lead of the mountains competition at the end of the day, and he looked to secure his advantage on the final climb of the Col de Richemond. "I told the others that I would do the work on the climb provided they let me take the points on the climb," he said.
To Voeckler's chagrin, however, he felt that he was a marked man in the finale, where Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) bridged up to the leaders. "Everybody was watching me, but when Devenyns attacked nobody chased," he said, stripping off his polka dot jersey as he spoke. "I told them when I attack, you all chase, so now you can go and close him yourselves."
Ironically, given his recent lament about the use of radio earpieces, Voeckler credited the instructions received over the airwaves from his team car urging him to work with Voigt to catch Devenyns. "Maybe if they hadn't told me to do that, then I would have refused to help close the gap," said Voeckler, by now stripped down to his vest.
With 1.5 kilometres to go, Voeckler made his move, jumping past Devenyns and facing into the seemingly never-ending drag to the finish line alone. "I only believed I had the win with five metres to go," he said. "With 500 metres to go, I turned and saw Voigt chasing me, with 300 metres to go, it was Sánchez, and then in the end it was Scarponi who finished second."
Though in a state of near undress by the time his press conference concluded, Voeckler will begin stage 11 in the polka-dot jersey, although he warned that he would struggle to defend his lead. "It's an objective for now, but I only have 26 points and the first climb tomorrow is worth 25," he noted. "You'll need about 180 points to win it in Paris."
Voeckler did acknowledge that he was struggling less and less with the knee injury that threatened his Tour participation. After Christophe Kern in 2011 and Antony Charteau and Pierre Rolland earlier in 2012, Voeckler was the latest to be struck by the apparent epidemic of knee injuries at Europcar.
"Since La Planche des Belles Filles, I've been feeling better, although the knee hurt on the descent today when I cooled down," he said. "It's a knee inflammation – if it were tendonitis, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't put my career and health in danger, even for the Tour."
Voeckler's win once again confirms him as the darling of the French public, at least in July, but that status contrasts sharply with the reputation he holds in some quarters of the peloton. Before he took his leave, Voeckler was asked why he was such an unpopular figure among some of his fellow professionals.
"I answered this question earlier in the year and it made a lot of noise," he said. "So you have to ask the other riders, they're the only ones who can give you an answer."