It was hard to avoid Thomas Voeckler in the Vendée in the days leading up to the Tour de France. The Europcar rider’s image was used heavily in advertising the Grand Départ in the region and the giant hoardings featuring Voeckler in the yellow jersey were clearly aspirational in their tone.
In spite of a plucky dig in pursuit of Alexandre Vinokourov at the end of stage one however, the pugnacious Voeckler was unable to complete the exercise in wish fulfilment atop the Mont des Alouettes, and ultimately had to content himself with 14th place behind Philippe Gilbert.
Emerging from the Europcar team bus to enthusiastic hollers of approval after the stage, Voeckler first marched across the road to give his dossard to a supporter, before turning to field questions from a gaggle of reporters.
"When Vinokourov attacked I followed him, but afterwards when Gilbert countered I couldn't follow anymore," Voecker said succinctly, when asked to describe his role in a breathless final kilometre. "I have no regrets, I just didn’t have the legs on the final climb. It's as simple as that."
The in-form Gilbert was widely tipped to take the Tour’s opening yellow jersey and Voeckler was fulsome in his praise of the Belgian's winning effort.
"Gilbert was impressive, but it was to be expected, wasn’t it?" Voeckler smiled ruefully. "Look at the races he's been winning since the end of the year. He was so heavily marked today and he still won, that's not easy."
Although he was born in Alsace and spent a chunk of his childhood in Martinique, Voeckler's cycling bloodlines run through the very heart of the Vendée. A fixture in Jean-René Bernaudeau's amateur and professional set ups for over a decade, he was in many respects the de facto regional rider for the opening stage. Did he feel the burden of that pressure on the approach the finishing climb?
"I was very nervous," Voeckler admitted. "The team did great work to place me. We had a rider in the break up ahead [Perrig Quemeneur – ed.] and then there were four guys who did a great job of putting me in position."
The first yellow jersey of the Tour may have slipped away from the Vendée-based Europcar outfit but Voeckler was still pleased with the day's showcase of his adopted region, which included a striking neutralised section from the Ille de Noirmoutie across the Passage du Gois to the mainland. The causeway was the scene of a race-altering split 12 years ago, but Voeckler was glad that such drama was left until the final throes of Saturday's stage.
"There were a few more people on it than when I'd go past in training," Voeckler joked. "Even for someone like me, who knows the place very well, it was still really impressive. It was less spectacular than in 1999 with all the crashes, but it was a lot safer for us riders and I still think that the images will have looked really good."
With that, Voeckler clambered back onto the bus to hearty cheers from the gathered locals. Not the yellow jersey, but the centre of attention all the same.
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