Thomas Voeckler of team Bbox-Bouygues Telecom enjoyed his second great moment today at the Tour, five years exactly after taking the yellow jersey in Chartres in 2004. After spending the whole day in a breakaway - a familiar situation for the Frenchman - he was finally rewarded the victory in Perpignan in front of Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Mark Cavendish (Columbia-Highroad), who soared over the finish line just a few seconds too late.
"When I turned around on the finish straight and understood that the gap was going to be enough, I told myself: Enjoy! This won't happen every day... I chased a Tour victory so hard that I just wanted to enjoy the moment as much as possible," a radiant Voeckler said in the finish.
It was the Frenchman's first victory in his home Grand Tour. In 2004, it was Stuart O'Grady who won the stage that brought him enough time to secure the overall lead, which he later heroically defended for ten days before having to give in to Lance Armstrong.
This time, five years later, Voeckler again jumped into the right breakaway, as he has done so many times. On a pancake-flat course with three quarters of a tailwind, it however seemed likely that it would would down to a bunch sprint - but he knew that there was also a possibility that the break would go through.
"It's no secret that Saxo Bank doesn't want to work over the whole three weeks. The day before yesterday already, when the four guys were gone, Voigt told me they didn't really want to chase, and I told him: 'you should have said that to me earlier!'," Voeckler laughed. "This morning, too, Cancellara told me, 'well, we'll see what happens' - they know to whom they say these things, too, don't they..."
The breakaway reached a maximum advantage of almost ten minutes around kilometre 40. Then, Columbia-HTC started chasing together with Saxo Bank, reducing their advantage, until the Danish team lit the GC fireworks and created echelons.
"I asked my directeur sportif how many riders were in the first bunch when the field split up," recalled Voeckler. "I still thought we were going to get caught. When I was told that it was Astana chasing with Saxo Bank, I thought we had a chance, because the sprinters' teams probably gambled, too, that the GC teams would be doing all the work."
'Ti-Blanc', as Voeckler was nick-named on the island of Martinique where he spent his youth, is seldom rewarded for his efforts in breakaways, but always tries to keep a cool head and analyse the race situation. "I elaborate finishing scenarios in my head: who's strong, who's less strong, who are the guys that could be allies because of their nationality...," Voeckler explained.
"Today, I didn't calculate any of this at all. I thought that it was impossible that we'd keep our advantage, because we only had 50 seconds left with 35 kilometres to go, for example. Afterwards, I told myself, even if we get through, there are two riders of a same team, of which one is really fast in the sprint [Yauheni Hutarovych from Francaise des Jeux - ed.]."
The 2007 Plouay winner was up against a fast man as well as another attacker, Mikhail Ignatiev from Katusha, who is known for his solo raids towards finish lines. The Russian initiated hostilities within the escape with 6.5 kilometres to go, and Voeckler understood that "we might not make it to the finish together. At the same time, it was risky, as the bunch still could have caught us. In a roundabout, the others took it a bit wide on the right hand side, and I took the opportunity to attack from the inside."
In the end, his victory was a combination of power ouput and the right tactis. "I think the other three looked at each other a bit. I don't think I dropped them, really. But once I got the gap, I went flat out. When I got under the flamme rouge and still had 10 seconds, I started to believe that I could win."
Five years to the day after he took the yellow jersey, Voeckler did not dedicate his victory to the team's manager Jean-René Bernaudeau, who happens to celebrate his birthday today, too. In fact, he did not think of anniversaries at all. "I was told about the yellow jersey anniversary after the finish line, I hadn't thought about it at all. This morning, we only celebrated Jean-René's birthday... but I'm not going to tell you that I won for him today!"
The victory, just like the overall lead five years ago, could save the team from disappearing. Bouygues Telecom's sponsorship runs out at the end of this season, and Bernaudeau desperately needs a new backer to keep the team going.
"The future of the team is not really safe, so this victory means a lot to us. In times like these, you ask yourself where you're going to ride next year. We're concentrated on the racing, but it's not always easy," Voeckler admitted. But with a Tour de France stage victory in his back pocket, Bernaudeau's talks with potential sponsors might get a new twist.