Thomas Voeckler was woven into the fabric of the modern Tour de France. He was as integral as helicopter chateaux shots, as eye-catching as ambitious agricultural co-operatives, as instantly gratifying as the projectiles from the publicity caravan, and as French as crusty bread and soft cheese picnics on the side of the road.
He was a reason for housewives of France to switch on the Tour during those long, simmering, sunflower-strewn stages. Never mind Contador, Froome, or all those forgettable names during the forgettable post-Armstrong years; he was their tongue-wagging, charismatic musketeer.
Even for those of us with more awareness of the sporting aspect of the Tour, his style was a cleansing antidote to the grubby notion of performance enhancement. Panache over palmares. Style over substance. Poulidor Complex – that French affection for the plucky loser – over precision-engineered prize-winning.
So unpicking Thomas Voeckler from the Tour’s tapestry is no mean feat, not least for the man himself.
“I’d say that right now I’m in that period that in French we would call ‘la digestion’, really…” he says. “…but it’s complicated, I have to be honest.”
Voeckler’s transition is neither new nor surprising; dozens of riders go through the process each year, each one stepping out of the all-consuming sport and drifting off into their own take on real life. But its frequency makes it no less difficult, both in its instant shock factor and its ultimate banality.
In Voeckler’s own words: “You’ve done just one thing, really deep, that takes up your whole life. And then you have this radical change; physical activity reduces and all those feelings you had as a rider, they are just things that you can’t rediscover in real life.”
He has no regrets about the way he bowed out last season. His longing for competition was outweighed by his desire for family time with three kids, aged nine, six and six months and, aged 38 during last year’s Tour, he wasn’t getting any younger. A man of carefully chosen words, he summarises it all with two: “je profite.”
“Yet the question that you ask yourself when you stop professional cycling is the question that you should ask yourself when you’re 20, 21 years old: what am I going to do with my life? At 38 you ought to know what you want to do.”
You’d think Voeckler would have it sewn up thanks to his popularity. He has at least quickly strolled back onto the TV screens and podium presentations of major French races as a pundit or ASO’s ambassadorial replacement for Bernard Hinault, which in one sense is la digestion but in another is a tasting board of different things.
“Because I’ve only done cycling in my life, I know neither what I like doing nor what I’m actually good at.”
Oh look, Thomas Voeckler’s in Asda in Barnsley. Obvs.
— Ned Boulting (@nedboulting) May 2, 2018
Voeckler is also studying for a diploma in sporting team management at the University of Limoges, a general two-year course taken by the likes of football managers Zinedine Zidane and Laurent Blanc. His sights are set on managing his own cycling team.
“Will I succeed, I don’t know. What I do know is that if I had immediately gone into working in a team, like working with [Direct Energie manager] Bernaudeau or something, it wouldn’t have been the right solution. Just because I’ve done 17 years as a pro rider doesn’t mean I have the slightest idea about being a good manager. It’s too easy to say that.”
The ultimate goal is about more than a team. After all, Voeckler will have earned enough to retire comfortably in the Vendée countryside and watch the 2018 Tour finish close to his home in La Roche sur Yon as a largely anonymous Monsieur Tout-le-monde.
But as usual it’s about more than just money and success, and more than just filling time. It’s about finding the same ‘envie’ – the same motivating force – as he did when he was a rider.
“I don’t dream of the WorldTour; that’s to say that I would prefer to be big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond,” he adds. “And, for me, the sport of cycling should still be about feeling that a team is like a family. I think that with a WorldTour team – with its number of riders and number of staff – inevitably loses a bit of this esprit.”
Thomas Voeckler is learning to stitch himself into the fabric of cycling once again, and in his own colourful, unmistakeable way.
“It’s my second career. I was very proud of my first career and I want to be proud of my second.”