Reporters standing beyond the finish line of a Tour de France time trial usually have to flag riders down as they come past, but Thomas Voeckler (Direct Energie) was already unclipping from his bike even before he reached the media huddle in the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille on Saturday afternoon.
The anticipated crowds of 50,000 or more never materialised inside the stadium and the atmosphere had been quite muted until Voeckler emerged to roll down the start ramp. By the time he returned to the arena more than half an hour later, the masses summoned a roar for the first time all afternoon, with cries of "Thomas, Thomas" cascading down the stands.
"Sometimes in the mountains we described it as being like a football stadium, that's the expression we use, but this was something a bit different, with the atmosphere," Voeckler said as he removed his helmet.
Voeckler's eyes were red when he removed his sunglasses. After Marseille, he had only one day left as a professional, the final stage of the Tour de France. After 17 years in the peloton – all in the colours of Jean-René Bernaudeau's teams – the time had come to bring down the curtain. "It's my last Tour, and obviously this my last time trial," Voeckler said. "I can't hide that this is emotional, it would be almost inhuman if it wasn't. The end of my career is drawing near."
On Sunday, Voeckler pinned on a race number for the final time as the Tour peloton ambled from Montgeron to the Champs-Élyées, by way of a novel deviation through the interior of the Grand Palais. The final 103 kilometres of Voeckler's career ticked by quietly, and there would be no late raid off the front, tongue lolling.
Younger men, Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Warren Barguil (Sunweb), have ignited the home crowds on this Tour, while Voeckler, for once, had struggled to make an impression. Yet although Voeckler was not handed the honour of leading the peloton onto the Champs-Élysées, much of the roadside acclaim, as ever, was for him.
"Over the Tour, I've had a lot of affection from the public. It's been like that over the last 15 years," Voeckler said. "It's been like that all over France, the public has always supported me. I always say it but it's true, so I'll repeat it: It's been a pleasure."
Voeckler's Tour debut came during the centenary race of 2003, and he has competed every year since, enjoying famous spells in yellow in 2004 and in 2011, where he finished an improbable fourth overall. He also claimed stage wins in 2009, 2010 and 2012, as well as the king of the mountains prize, even if he insisted that his greatest day came elsewhere.
"On the Tour, it's special because there've been a lot different emotions. My most special win isn't on the Tour, though, it was the French Championships in 2010," Voeckler said. "If people remember me as a rider who always fought with his own means, and who never laid down arms, I'd be happy with that."
Although Voeckler didn't mark his final Tour with a stage win or the prize of super-combatif, ASO was never going to let the occasion go unmarked, and he was honoured on the podium before the presentation of the jerseys. Voeckler has yet to decide on his post-cycling career, though France Télévisions are reportedly interested in his services as a pundit, while ASO might well see him as the kind of popular figure to fill the ambassador's role vacated by Bernard Hinault last year.
"Everybody goes in his own style. I liked what Tom Boonen did, retiring on the night of Paris-Roubaix, his favourite race. For me, it was obvious to end my career on the Champs-Élysées," Voeckler said. "I've had the great fortune to be able to choose the time and the place of my retirement. I don't know what I'll do afterwards. 38 is old for a cyclist but it's no age to retire. I've got a second professional life ahead of me."
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