“I won’t be on the bike at the age of 40. Or 39. And I’m 37 now.”
When Rouleur interviewed Thomas Voeckler in 2016, that was as direct a retirement plan that could be extorted from the peloton’s slippery and unknowable joker in the pack. Yet, like it or not, by the time the 2017 Tour de France gets underway Voeckler will have clocked up the unmentionable 38th birthday and we will be facing up to a future without ‘Petit-Blanc’, one of cycling’s most entertainingly divisive riders who has been both adored and disparaged in equal measure.
To some, he is professional cycling’s escapologist extraordinaire with a divine knack of picking the right breakaway then outfoxing his rivals, proof that the little guy can come out on top. For others, he is a showboater and attention-seeker up the road on suicide breakaways who hams it up for the camera to propagate brand Voeckler.
Undeniably, the gargoyle-grimaces that are his trademark have played a large part in that dividing of opinions. Making efforts in breakaways, Voeckler bares his teeth, swivels his eyes and waggles his tongue like a madman. Sometimes he seems to be yabbering away to himself. The Frenchman is a pedalling gallery of emojis, switching from cherub to jester or cranky-faced goblin in a heartbeat. It looks like he’s going for an Oscar, not a bike race.
“It’s true that they’re not pretty. But you’ve got to understand: I grimace when in front, when I attack,” he explained. “Every rider expresses his suffering in his own way. I tried to remedy it a bit, but when you’re going at your maximum, nature comes out again. Like it or not, that’s how it is.”
In a manner that is typical Voeckler, that is an apparently straight answer soon followed up with a contradiction. Behind the elastic expressions is a shrewd, cunning mind, and it’s clear that the facial gymnastics are not just an outlet for exhaustion. “Like when I won the last stage of Paris-Nice 2011. I grimaced on all the climbs to make the others believe I wasn’t good. And I won alone later.”
It’s not the only ploy hidden in the magician’s bag of tricks. “It’s happened before that I pretend I’m talking to my directeur sportif on the race radio, saying ‘you’re pissing me off, I’m not allowed to ride? But I feel fine,’ when I’m not actually pressing the button on it. There are other ruses like that, but I can’t reveal everything either.”
Thomas Voeckler is more than just a trickster, however. Get him going on the analysis he makes during a breakaway and it is like listening to a master explaining his craft. “Once away in an escape, I think about the strength of those present, who is fast in the sprint, the parcours, who has interests in riding [on the front], perhaps who has been in a team with somebody else before, possible alliances – all of this is in my head. You can also have problems in the peloton, [chasing] riders who won’t let things go. You’ve got to see all that too.”
Voeckler’s early years were spent honing and applying this breakaway specialism in search of a Tour de France stage win. While this goal eluded him until 2009, his tireless pursuit yielded two wonderfully romantic spells in the yellow jersey that cemented Voeckler’s place in the hearts of the French public. In 2004 he was, as he puts it, “the little French guy who was fighting against the American”, holding off Lance Armstrong for a full 10 days.
In 2011, having infiltrated the stage nine breakaway to Saint-Flour, Voeckler claimed both the yellow jersey and a two minute GC lead on Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers: nothing significant. Yet in the Pyrenees, the contenders could only chip dozens of seconds away, rather than minutes.
Gradually, it dawned on France and the watching world that this 1,500-1 pre-race outsider could win the sport’s biggest prize. It was fanciful and romantic, probably as close as the Tour de France will get to Leicester City’s football fairytale.
On the race’s showcase stage atop the Galibier, Voeckler defended his yellow jersey by 15 seconds, clenching his fist exhaustedly at the top. He couldn’t, could he? Nope. Tiredness and a tactical error did for him the following day on the stage to Alpe d’Huez, 48 hours from Paris. Nevertheless, his fourth place finish was still sensational; the French love a plucky loser more than a cold winner.
Love or hate
But the hero of the French public was regularly a villain to his peers. In a 2012 interview with L’Equipe, Voeckler said that “nine out of ten riders don’t like me.” What did he mean by that?
“I think that was true,” he says, a little smile spreading across his face. “I’m sure that after 2004, when I had a lot of publicity around my results, I think that there was a lot of jealousy. It was because I had a far more elevated media impact than my performance deserved.”
“I lost races because of it. I don’t want to say which one exactly, but there was one time where I lost a very beautiful race because riders who had no interest in doing so sacrificed themselves to bring me back.”
This sets Voeckler off on a peeve: the two-faced nature of cycling. “I’m no fan of that”, he says. “I prefer to be frank”.
One can easily imagine Thomas Voeckler passing on his guile to the next generation as a directeur sportif. But foremost in his mind is fulfilling “a feeling” and returning to the sea. When we interviewed him in 2016 he was building a weekend house on the island of Noirmoutier off the Atlantic coast. The Frenchman wanted get a boat and return to fishing and sailing, or make day trips with family and friends. Tranquility, rumination and potentially one lasting breakaway for the man who changed the face of French cycling.