Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Do It 'til It Hurts (Pt. II): The Tour de France

Let me begin with apologies by plunging your heads into a cold cliche: this is turning out to be a Cinderella Tour. 

Meaning that Thomas Voeckler has worn the yellow jersey since Stage 9 (stage 17 ran earlier today). Riding safely through the crashfest in stage 8, he changed the race from a one-second duel between race leader Thor Hushovd and Cadel Evans that had lasted over several stages, since nearly the July 2 start of the Tour. Coming from 19th place, a minute and a half behind, Voeckler established himself nearly two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor and another half-minute ahead of Evans in third.

Voeckler is an Alsatian, a Frenchman with a German name pronounced (at least by the eternal race announcer Phil Liggett, a bellwether of how not to pronounce anything) 'Voh-kler.' I would have said 'Veh-kler,' but I only know three German words as it is - Schloss Vollrads, spatlese, auslese and trockenbeerenauslese. Well, four German words. Oh, and riesling. So I'm no authority either, except I can pronounce 'Liggett,' which I think is Australian for something you do after you've burglarized a beer warehouse. (The French say 'veau-clair.')

Voeckler is the Cinderella of the Tour on several counts. For starters, the Tour, which in France is something equivalent to the Super Bowl being played on the Fourth of July, has not been won by a Frenchman since 1985, when the great Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour (the following year he stood second on the podium to Greg Le Mond, the first American ever to win).

Bernard Hinault

Voeckler, in the Zen-like tradition of Jacques Anquetil, leads the field without having won a single stage in this race. Unlike the stolid Anquetil, however, Thomas is known for his stigmata, the visible signs of his suffering, most notably a magnificently beefy tongue springing like the Holy Spirit from his visage.

'Je souffre.'

He has worn the yellow jersey before, in the 2004 Tour, when he became a minor hero of the French public. Expected to hold the lead for only a day against the all-devouring Armstrong, he held on for a remarkable 10 days before surrendering the jersey to the eventual victor.

This time around, Voeckler has dazzled a field of cautious riders, using his instincts as an animateur - the one who attacks, breaks up the rhythm of the peloton, strings out the leaders with unexpected sorties, keeps the field unsettled and watchful - to maintain his lead.  Still, he defies the American ethos of Stephen Covey's highly effective and therefore habitually happy people. "I don't believe for even one second that I can win the Tour," Voeckler told the cycling press after a few days in yellow. "I think my chances are zero." How could you hate the guy? The French aren't listening, of course, but I'm sure someone tried to warn them before the Battle of the Somme. Which could be Cadel Evans, or it could be Alberto Contador.

What makes Voeckler's current ascendency even more compelling is that it upsets the dispensation of the world according to the cycling media. No one could have predicted his sudden jump from 19th place to the front of the standings - better yet, he doesn't look or sprint like the brash Mark Cavendish (four stages in this Tour to Voeckler's zero, but two hours back in slot 124), he is neither of the Schleck brothers who get a lion's share of attention in race coverage. He doesn't think for a minute that he'll win this Tour, he never probably thought much about standing on the podium before last week. He just rides his bike.

Contador has already won three Tours and this year's Giro d'Italia. His fortunes in the early stages have been poor (crashes, mostly) but he is coming back stronger. He could win it again, which would be fine with me. And Voeckler already knows that he faces a tough time in the remaining mountain stages. He gave up over 20 seconds today over tough climbs, so his margin has slipped to about 80 seconds, with five stages remaining to ride.

But right now I'm voting for the Frog.

"Cheri, 'ev you seen may glass sleepurz?"

UPDATE, July 21: Stage 18 is the hardest stage of the Tour with three climbs beyond categorization. On the final climb, Andy Schleck attacked early on the Col d-Izoard, held on over Col du Galibier to win the stage, and leaves Thomas Voeckler with a scant 15-second lead. Thomas himself rode amazingly to hold onto the yellow jersey. The standings have been shaken up considerably - Andy's brother Frank Schleck is in third, Contador is a distant seventh place, more than four minutes off the leader. No chance for Contador this year.

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