In his own particular riding style, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) may not be the most enjoyable rider to watch especially in the mountains, but on stage 16 of this year's Tour de France he has again proven that his will to suffer is sufficient enough to achieve great climbing performances.
The Frenchman won the Pyrenean stage in Bagnères-de-Luchon after having spent the whole day in front, first in a breakaway of 38 riders, then solo in the finale. Moreover, he took the maximum mountain points at each of the four categorised climbs of the day, finally snatching the polka dot jersey off Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) by just four points.
Of four Tour de France stage victories so far in his career, this was Voeckler's second stage win in 2012, as well as his second win in Bagnères-de-Luchon. Back in 2010, he had already won in the Pyrenean town at the end of a similar, but less demanding stage. It was no surprise that given all of these performances, as well as his grip on the yellow jersey on previous Tours, the 33-year-old was heroically celebrated by the crowd in the finish.
"For me, there were four races today, each of the four cols to climb," Voeckler admitted after the race. "I told myself that each summit was a finish line, I didn't think about the overall distance of the stage. The objective was to take the maximum mountain points at each summit, and the polka dot jersey in the end. I've been racing these mountains since I was 19 years old, so I knew each of these 197 km by heart.
"In Bellegarde (stage 10), I realized my victory, but today, I can't seem to get it into my head. But I've also just spent four cols in front - it's something I saw on TV when I was a kid. I'm very proud of what I did today, to be honest."
It was a race of attrition that saw Voeckler as the last man standing out of the iintial breakaway. Together with fellow countryman Brice Feillu (Saur-Sojasun), he dropped his rivals in the second hors cateogorie climb of the day, the Col du Tourmalet. The duo continued on over the third ascent, the category 1 Col d'Aspin, before Voeckler decided it was time to solo off at the beginning of the last climb, another category 1 climb, the Col de Peyresourde.
"I was one of the best-placed riders in the break to take the jersey today," he recapped. "I told Feillu I was riding for the polka dot, which doesn't mean I would have let him win the stage but I told him that I would be giving everything until the last summit. With Brice, we rode strongly together but he's a great climber so I was also a little bit afraid of him. When Vinokourov and Sörensen started coming back on us, I knew I had to ride [the chasers were at 35 seconds behind the leading duo at the beginning of the Peyresourde - ed.].
The Frenchman admitted that this victory may have been one of his favourites, for its difficulty as well as tactical requirements, and that he preferred to race aggressively rather than having to limit his losses in view of the general classification, as he did last year. "This is how I really like to race, on the attack instead of chasing the top 15 riders of GC. When I heard that I had 1:30 on Sörensen at the summit of the Peyresourde, I told myself that it would be enough. I was a bit afraid that he could come back in the descent, and catch me again in the last two kilometers of flat, but in the end it was enough, and I was able to really savour my victory before crossing the finish line."
With the polka dot jersey now on his back, Voeckler has another difficult day ahead of him with stage 17 to Peyragudes taking place on Thursday. Leading Kessiakoff by a mere four points, the Frenchman expects a tough battle throughout the stage and up until the mountaintop finish.
"Now that I have the polka dot jersey, I will of course try to defend it, even if I never thought of myself as a real climber. I need a good long massage tonight to hopefully recover well. Four points ahead of Kessiakoff is not much, but it's better to have them than not. There's a lot of work to do again tomorrow: to me, the Tour de France ends tomorrow evening," he concluded.