During Thomas Voeckler's ten days of glory wearing the yellow jersey, one of his teammates stood out as being particularly strong in the support of his Europcar leader: Pierre Rolland. On stage 19 to L'Alpe d'Huez, as Voeckler's overall lead was taken by Andy Schleck, the 24-year-old Rolland was given the opportunity to prove his enormous talent and he did not fail: he got the better of the world's greatest climbers Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez, winning his first Tour de France stage on top of a mythical mountain and taking the white jersey of best young rider from Rein Taaramae.
The tall and lean Europcar rider was the first Frenchman to win atop of the Alpe since Bernard Hinault in 1986. "I'm on a cloud right now, I don't realise what I've done," an incredulous Rolland told the press in the finish. "Bernard Hinault's win in 1986 corresponds to the year of my birth. I'm proud of myself..."
Rolland started the stage as a domestique to Voeckler, whom he tried to maintain in the overall lead. But after Contador had attacked early in the Col du Télégraphe, taking Andy Schleck with him - and it became clear that Voeckler would not be able to come back on them - the 24-year-old was given the green light to leave his leader.
"When Thomas told me that I could play my own card and go for the white jersey, I knew I could go for the stage," Rolland explained. "I know the area here really well so I knew when to make my move on this little hill in the valley [leading to the foot of the final climb]." The Frenchman collaborated with Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal to catch Contador and Schleck, before the Spaniard launched further attacks.
"Contador attacked like only he can, and I was at 20 seconds. But they told me in the earpiece that Sanchez was coming back, and I got back to Contador thanks to him. I admit that I took advantage of him. That's the game, his interests were the classifications and I had the stage in my head."
Rolland stayed on the wheel of the Olympic champion and did not collaborate, which made team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau extremely proud. "It was extraordinary when I saw that he didn't crack under the pressure of Sanchez. He didn't take a turn, and went on to take not only a stage victory at the Tour de France, but the stage victory on Alpe d'Huez. It's a great, great monument," Bernaudeau cheered.
In the last two kilometres, Rolland outsmarted the two Spaniards, who are moreover good friends and allies. "I knew they were allies, but I also knew that in the last bend I'd be able to jump and hold my speed all the way up to the line. I perfectly know this climb as this is where I prepared the Tour de France last year," he explained.
This year, after some good results in Paris-Nice and the Critérium International, Bernaudeau decided it was time for the 24-year-old to focus solely on the Tour. "I matched my preparation on those of the great champions and it worked out. At the Dauphiné, I was at 80 percent of my abilities, but my trainer told me that I'd be good in the second and third week. I listened to him, and I'm happy that I did, because sometimes I thought he was crazy for making me do the things I did."
Now, Rolland may start to fulfil the expectations laid upon him since he won the mountains classification at the 2008 Dauphiné. France is still desperately searching for its next national Tour contender, and Rolland could be a candidate - but he did not want to promise anything.
"I know I have my best ten years still in front of me," he replied if he could see himself win the Tour de France one day. "The only thing I want is not to regret anything later, so I will do everything to be as successful as possible."
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