Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) has thus far been spared the kind of intense public countdown endured by Tom Boonen over the spring, but the Frenchman is quietly burning the days as he nears the end of his career. When the Tour de France reaches the Champs-Élysées on July 23, Voeckler will hang up his wheels, though he will not step away from professional cycling altogether.
Public relations, television work and team management each hold their own allure for the 37-year-old, and he is reluctant to decide on the direction of his cycling afterlife until the summer. "The only thing I can say for sure is that I'll stay in cycling. What my role will be, I don't know and I haven't decided yet, though I have been talking about it," Voeckler said in York on Thursday on the eve of his final appearance on British roads at the Tour de Yorkshire.
"One thing is sure: the guy who wins on the last day in Sheffield won't be far from the overall victory. But in a three-day race like the Tour de Yorkshire, if you focus too much on one stage you can lose everything on the other ones."
Voeckler won the race a year ago by overpowering Nicolas Roche on the final leg to Scarborough, and as a consequence, this weekend marks the last time in his career that he lines up wearing dossard number one. He has been passing his jersey onto various team sponsors after each race this season, but he admitted that he was minded to hang onto this one as a memento.
While Boonen's spring was taken up by the all-encompassing crusade to win a fifth Paris-Roubaix, there is a more valedictory feel to Voeckler's final weeks in the peloton. After seventeen years as a professional, two French titles and twenty days in the maillot jaune on the Tour, Voeckler has little left to achieve. His emphasis is on enjoying the moment rather than seizing it.
"I already have a lot of victories in my career. I'd be happy to have another win, a nice one, but it won't be a big regret if I don't," Voeckler said. "It's my last season as a professional. I'm enjoying it. I'm just trying to draw pleasure from it. I have no goals in terms of results. I don't say to myself, ‘I have to win this race' or ‘I have to win a stage on the Tour de France.' I don't think like this. I just take pleasure in riding for my team, spending most of the time as a road captain and a teammate. Then, when the legs are good, I can try to make breakaways."
Voeckler admits to only a pair of regrets as he takes his leave from the peloton. Failing to win a major Classic was a disappointment – witness Voeckler's obvious dismay after missing out at Paris-Tours in 2014 – while he still maintains he could have placed second behind Cadel Evans at the 2011 Tour had he not attempted a forlorn, lone pursuit of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck on the Col du Galibier.
"Without two tactical errors, I could have been second in that Tour, but first place was never possible, so that makes it less difficult to accept," Voeckler said. "The best moment of my career was when I was French champion at home in the Vendée in 2010, but I don't have a worst moment, because I've had the good fortune to come through my career without any serious injuries."
Voeckler has spent each of his seventeen seasons at the top level on the team of Jean-René Bernaudeau, and he famously saved the squad at the eleventh hour in the autumn of 2010, when his decision to reject a contract from Cofidis paved the way for Europcar to step in and replace Bouygues Telecom as sponsor. Though his employer remained the same throughout the years, Voeckler witnessed changes aplenty during a career that began in the midst of the Lance Armstrong era.
"The value of a stage win at the Tour de France is perhaps the best example of how things have changed," Voeckler said. "Fifteen years ago, you might still have less strong riders winning stages of the Tour de France, but nowadays that's just not possible. The importance of a stage win at the Tour is such that you don't get wildcards popping up and winning anymore.
"I also began in an era where a lot of riders did their jobs honestly but you had more riders who were cheating, and the controls weren't good enough. One of big things that's changed is anti-doping and the whereabouts system, and in the past few years, cycling has been an example for the work that's been done."
Voeckler's surprising fourth place at the 2011 Tour arrived after a decade or more in which French riders had made little to no impact on the very upper echelons of the general classification. In the years since, Jean-Christophe Péraud, Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet have all stood on the podium in Paris, and the idea of a first French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 is far less fanciful now than it was when Voeckler began his career in 2001.
"For a long time, I'd always respond ‘no' when asked if a Frenchman could win the Tour, but in the last two years, I've been saying ‘yes' because when a Frenchman places third like Pinot and second like Bardet, it shows they can do it," Voeckler said.
The younger generation will again lead the French challenge this July, but it seems unlikely that the Tour will go by without Voeckler marking the occasion in some way, shape or form. He has gurned and grimaced his way to four stage wins in the Tour over the years, and he joked that the facial tics, at least, will remain to the very end. "I'm still grimacing now," he said. "But I'm not in front so much so you don't see it as often on the telly."