Twelve months ago, the start of Thomas Voeckler’s season was over before it even began. The Frenchman flew halfway around the world to ride the Tour Down Under only to crash and break his collarbone within hours of touching down in Adelaide. He was already back in France before the race kicked off, the early months of his 2014 campaign compromised.
A year on, Voeckler has come to Argentina for something of a do-over, even if that Australian incident has understandably left its mark. As the Frenchman called home while waiting for the start of stage 2 of the Tour de San Luis on Tuesday, he looked to reassure his children in soft tones. "I’ll try not to fall off," he repeated with a smile.
With gallows humour, Voeckler had noted earlier at the weekend that he had no option but to start his season in Argentina as Europcar’s absence from the WorldTour meant that he couldn’t return to the Tour Down Under, but in either case, he had firm reasons for wanting to start his season as soon as possible.
"I’ve always liked to start racing early because it’s true that I’m not a big fan of training," Voeckler told Cyclingnews in La Punta. "And what’s more, when you have a family, it’s difficult to justify going away for anything less than a race. My job is to race but going away for training camps is more difficult for me. What I love in cycling is competition and even if I’m not 100 per cent – and I’m not even close to it right now – I’d prefer to have a race than a training camp at this point of the year."
Europcar’s demotion from the WorldTour for economic reasons in December provoked mild outrage, particularly when the sword of Damocles dangling over Astana’s registration was returned to its scabbard once the UCI Licence Commission decided that its objections to the team’s doping record were essentially unenforceable.
Voeckler refused to be drawn into comparing Europcar and Astana’s respective situations and he maintains a rather pragmatic outlook on his team’s Pro Continental status. "Sure, it was a disappointment but in 2011, 2012 and even 2013, we were Pro Continental and that didn’t prevent us from riding a lot of good WorldTour races and we got a lot of results too," he said.
"Maybe it’s a little problematic for team in the long-term because for a sponsor the WorldTour is certainly more attractive. But we have limited means and maybe it’s our place to be in the second division, targeting specific WorldTour races."
Indeed, Europcar has already confirmed that it is withdrawing its sponsorship of the team at the end of the 2015 season and manager Jean-René Bernaudeau faces the arduous task of finding a replacement. With the top flight in cycling set to be reduced to 16 teams in 2017, teams already outside of the WorldTour could well struggle to attract significant backers, but Voeckler does not believe his team’s second tier status necessarily penalises their search.
"Not really, because when you’re in the WorldTour, the budget required is that bit bigger," he said. "Ok, Jean-René has one argument less up his sleeve when he’s talking to sponsors, because he can’t say we’re a WorldTour team but at the same time, the amount of money he needs from a potential sponsor would be a bit less too. And we’ve certainly got a team that allows us to expect decent wildcard invitations all year long, whether it’s Tirreno or the Tour de France."
2010 and all that
Bernaudeau’s team has been in this situation before, of course. One of the enduring soap operas of the 2010 season was his quest to find a substitute for Bouygues Telecom and the denouement was rich in melodrama. All summer, Voeckler had flirted with Cofidis but refrained from putting pen to paper. When, in early October, Europcar told Bernaudeau that they would save his team on the proviso that Voeckler stayed put, the Frenchman finally rejected the Cofidis offer to complete the fairytale.
Voeckler smiled at the memory but insisted that the ground has since shifted beneath his feet. While the following two seasons were his best to date – he finished fourth in the 2011 Tour and then claimed two stages and the mountains jersey a year later – at 35 years of age, he accepts that he can no longer offer guarantees for the future.
"But I need to be honest – probably maybe I don’t have the same stature or the same level of results that I had five years ago, so I’m maybe a bit less indispensable for a sponsor than I was back then," he said. "This time, I alone won’t be sufficient, and we’ll probably need a sponsor to come forward a lot earlier if we’re going to keep the riders. But my desire is clearly to stay with the team next year, and I haven’t set any deadline with Jean-René for a new sponsor or anything like that."
After the Tour de San Luis, Voeckler will race Étoile des Bessèges, the Trofeo Laigueglia, Tour du Haut-Var, Boucles Drôme-Ardèche and Paris-Nice, but beyond that his programme is all to be decided. Voeckler enjoyed solid cobbled classics campaigns in 2012 and 2013, for instance, but he is reticent to commit to a return to the pavé just yet.
"They certainly motivate me but after my accident last year, I’m a bit more wary of battling for position on the cobbles at the Flemish classics – and that’s a fundamental aspect of racing there," he said. "So I’m going to wait and see how I feel physically and how confident I feel on the bike."
In theory, the onus is on Europcar to win early and often this season in order to attract new backers, but Voeckler was adamant that the canvasing in the background would not alter his approach or that of his team.
"We’re not the strongest team and we don’t have the best riders but we have to show our team spirit and our typical racing style, which is to go on the attack," he said. "That’s our trademark, and if we still exist this time next year, it will be because of that, I think."