Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) may be the darling of the French public after his exploits at the Tour de France, but he has admitted that his riding style has won him few friends in the peloton over the years.
The Frenchman made his first major impact in the summer of 2004, when victory at the national championships was followed by a lengthy spell in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. While his pugnacious displays earned accolades aplenty in the home media, Voeckler soon detected a palpable degree of resentment among some of his peers.
“For the last few years, I’ve been the most popular French rider, sort of the darling, and at the same time, nine riders out of ten in the peloton don’t like me,” Voeckler told L’Équipe. “I understood that very early on, from 2005. The previous year, I had worn the yellow jersey for ten days on the Tour de France, but they felt that from a sporting point of view, I didn’t merit all that interest.”
In the years immediately after that initial breakthrough, Voeckler found that his aggressive brand of riding had put a number of noses out of joint in the peloton.
“One day on the 2006 Tour, Tom Boonen, who was reigning world champion, was near the front, slowing things a little,” Voeckler said. “At the moment I launched my attack, he hit me hard on the back. I stopped, he yelled at me and I said to him: ‘You can shout if you like, but don’t touch me.’ I was the small French guy he could hit because I’m thirty centimetres smaller than him.
“Whatever your palmares, nobody has the right to do that to a guy who wants to attack. I can’t forget it. Others, like Andrey Mizurov, threatened to throw their bidons at me if I attacked.”
Voeckler subsequently realised that his high media profile had also fanned some jealousy within the French peloton, although he admitted that the situation has changed slightly since his illustrious 2011 season. “But that doesn’t mean they have more time for me,” he pointed out. “My results have just changed the deal. In cycling, you need to have a palmares to have the right to talk, to be respected. I find that a bit useless.”
To illustrate his point, Voeckler recalled one of the first times he encountered the peloton’s internal hierarchy, during his grand tour debut.
“At the start of every stage of the Giro d’Italia, Mario Cipollini took out the road book to show riders where they had the right to attack! That was when I was starting out, in 2001, it was another era. And guys went along with it!”
Dealing with suspicion
That Voeckler has now earned the respect, if not the affection of his peers, is based largely on his performance at the 2011 Tour de France. In a remarkable display, he repeated his 2004 feat of wearing the yellow jersey for ten days, and also went on to finish fourth overall in Paris.
Given that he had finished 76th overall the previous year, eyebrows were raised at the marked nature of Voeckler’s transformation in the mountains. He took such suspicions on the chin, and admitted that he was himself struggling to explain the late blossoming of hitherto unknown stage racing prowess.
“I understand [the suspicions] all the more given that I’m the first to make that proposal about certain guys… I can’t blame people when you see all the affairs there have been these past few years,” Voeckler said. “On the Tour this year, I was surprised to be there. In 2009 also, when I won the Tour de Haut Var, and in 2010, with the great season that I did.
“I’m at a level that I would never have expected. I don’t really know how to explain it. I’ve discovered aptitudes in the high mountains while I’ve always maintained that as soon as the gradient went above 6%, it climbed too much for me.”
Voeckler also addressed rumours that he had trained under the supervision of an Italian doctor, and dismissed the suggestion that he had once been a client of the Bernard Sainz, the so-called ‘Dr. Mabuse.’
“I heard it said that I was seeing Docteur Mabuse. There’s even a guy who saw me coming out of his house!” Voeckler said. “To come back to the Italian doctor, at one stage, I had a doctor called Flavio Bartolucci, who was also with Française des Jeux. In 2007, he gave me some training plans.”