With one win to his name already, Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) was in bonus territory on stage 15 of the Tour de France, and the Frenchman could hardly be described as despondent after he came home third behind Pierrick Fédrigo (FDJ-BigMat) in Pau on Monday.
The former Bouygues Telecom teammates were part of a six-man break that formed 50 kilometres in, and the sextet's fluid collaboration - allied to the general fatigue in the peloton on a day of searing heat in the southwest - allowed them to help themselves to a generous 12-minute lead on the final run-in to the finish.
The break's détente was broken by a pair of attacks from Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff), which also prompted Voeckler to try a couple of tentative digs, but he was left flat-footed when Fédrigo clipped away six kilometres from home with Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) for company.
"It was all a bit tactical in the finale," Voeckler said afterwards as he leaned against the Europcar team bus and held court before a small cluster of reporters. "I attacked a couple of times, but when Pierrick attacked he really went with a lot of power."
Given that Voeckler and Fédrigo both emerged from Jean-René Bernaudeau's Vendée academy, it was tempting to put two and two together and wonder if there had been a tacit accord between the pair. Voeckler shook his head as the idea was put to him.
"No, no, it wasn't like that," he said. "When he went, I tried to get back up to him, but I wasn't going to do all the work. That wasn't to favour Pierrick, but I didn't want to bring someone else across to win either. Still, I'm happy that a friend and former teammate won, but you only had to be in the peloton for the last few days to see how strong he's been."
As Fédrigo and Vande Velde disappeared out of sight, Voeckler began to look over his shoulder for help to close the gap, but he found that the fragile unity of the group had been definitively shattered. He was succinct when asked if he regretted the lack of collaboration as the winning move went clear.
"No, it's not a regret because I can't say I was surprised," Voeckler said, unzipping his jersey. "Besides, given the composition of the break, the name of the winner isn't all that surprising, like Sanchez yesterday. It's Pierrick's fourth stage win at the Tour and just because he had a bad season last year didn't mean he was to be underestimated. Chapeau to him."
Peeling off his jersey as though for effect, Voeckler noted that the heat, speed and heavy roads meant that it was never likely to be a day for the sprinters. He pointed to the abandons of his teammates Giovanni Bernaudeau and Vincent Jerome as proof of the difficulty of the stage.
"If you're dropped, it's hard to stay within the time limit on a day like today when the gap is 10 minutes to the break," he said. "It's mission impossible to get back on. It's actually easier in a mountain stage - all you have to do is follow Cavendish."
By now bare-chested, Voeckler had time to ponder the perennial question of the general standard of French performances in the Tour, before he broke away to sign autographs for the throng of fans gathered at the other side of the bus.
After a difficult start to the Tour, including the news that his Europcar team had been placed under investigation for the suspected use of corticosteroids and intravenous vitamin solutions in 2011, Voeckler took stage victory in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine last week. The home nation was celebrating its fourth stage win of the race as Fédrigo triumphed in Pau, but 27 years on from Bernard Hinault's final win, another Tour is passing by with no French interest in the battle for the maillot jaune.
"Every year, we talk about waiting for the French but we're up there," Voeckler said. "Ok, maybe we're not competing on GC but we got fourth last year and it's not too bad this year. These aren't the results of Hinault or Jalabert but I think the public are still enjoying it."
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