France still searching for first stage winner of 2013 Tour
Even when Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) lies hidden in the lower reaches of the general classification of the Tour de France, he remains one of the central characters of the French summer.
In every ville départ, Voeckler's is the name that raises the decibel levels to such an extent that even speaker Daniel Mangèas' breathless patter is drowned out. The maillot jaune apart, he is perhaps the most easily identifiable character in the great spectacle, his high white socks and hitched-up shorts forming part of a costume topped off by the tricolour trim on his jersey.
At every finish line, the Europcar team bus is besieged by a fresh army of autograph hunters and Voeckler will always find time to run a marker across a postcard or a cardboard hand, if proffered. Voeckler being Voeckler, he will usually find time to address the swarm of cameras and microphones that gather there daily, too.
In truth, Voeckler has so far done little to merit such close media attention at this year's Tour and his declarations, for the most part, have been concerned with his squad's ongoing quest to find a sponsor for next season.
All the Tour is a stage, however, and nobody understands the importance of dramatic timing quite like Voeckler. With France still searching for a stage win, Sunday's Bastille Day stage to Mont Ventoux seems an opportune moment for a man with Voeckler's sense of theatre to make his grand entry.
"Obviously it's July 14 and we still haven't had a French stage win, so that adds to it," Voeckler said in Lyon on Saturday evening. "It's going to be a very hard stage not just because you've got the Ventoux but because it comes at the end of 240 kilometres of racing."
Voeckler impressed in winning the Route du Sud and a stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, but has been unable to repeat that form at the Tour and he currently lies in 107th place overall, almost one and a half hours down on Chris Froome.
"My legs are a bit better than they were but it's hard to know right now whether that will be enough to get into a good break or get a placing at the summit of the Ventoux," Voeckler said. "The only thing that's certain is that it will be an extremely hard stage, regardless of how it's raced and regardless of who wins it."
It's six years since Voeckler has last failed to land either a stage win or a spell in a leader's jersey at the Tour, and he has usually banked something in the opening half of the race. His past credits include four stage victories, a king of the mountains title and twenty days in the maillot jaune, and it would be unthinkable for this year's script not to include another scene-stealing cameo.
"From a personal point of view, it's been a bit of a failure so far and I haven't done anything extraordinary, but I'm hopeful that I can turn that around in the final week," Voeckler said. "I'd rather get something out of the race earlier on, but in any case on a collective level, Europcar has shown itself a lot as a team. We've had a man in all the breaks and collectively, we've been super."
Before climbing aboard the Europcar bus, Voeckler had a word, too, for his teammate Pierre Rolland, who holds the lead in the king of the mountains competition but must defend the jersey through a demanding final week in the Alps.
"It's going to be a hard-fought maillot à pois for Pierrot," Voeckler warned. "From here on it, it's going to be a battle every day to the end."
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Tour de France
Tour de France 2013