Thomas Voeckler is a professional bicycle racer. He rides for the Europcar team; the sponsor is a major European rental car agency. His salary in 2011 was €420,000 (about $600,000 in cheesy American money), the second most of any French rider.
That salary, mediocre by American sports standards but enough for anybody to live comfortably on, should go up this year. Voeckler had a brilliant 2011 racing record, including victories in the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Haut Var, as well as two stages in the “icebreaker” spring stage race, the “Ride to the Sun,” Paris-Niece.
And then there was the Tour de France. Riding with a relatively weak team, Voeckler managed to grab the overall race lead, the Yellow Jersey, a couple of days before the Tour hit the Pyrenees on Bastille Day. He did it by making it into the winning break on a “bumpy” course, and being strong enough to finish second in the sprint to pull ahead on overall time. On the French holiday Voeckler hung in there with the group of favorite climbers over the massive Col de Tourmalet, and then lost just a few seconds to those favorites on the final climb up Luz Ardiden (where Lance Armstrong first crashed, then recovered and stormed to a crucial victory in 2003). The announcers were predicting he couldn’t hold the Jersey after July 14, but as he had in the 2003 Tour he did indeed hold on for days by sheer grit. He ground out the pace, staying with the race leaders even on the most demanding Alpine climbs until the mountains finally got to him. But he finished a most impressive 4th overall, just off the Paris podium.
Now Voeckler says that if the fans love him, most of the peloton hates him for his hard-charging, opportunistic style. He says that esteemed Beligian sprinter Tom Boonen pounded him on the back during the 2006 Tour de France when Voeckler attacked at a time when protocol demanded that he not. It seems that the “leaders” of the peloton call the shots on such matters. It’s as if Derek Jeter called time to tell David Ortiz that he couldn’t swing at the upcoming pitch. Boonen was found to have ingested cocaine a couple of years later. At least it was a recreational drug, nothing performance enhancing. Boonen apparently preferred to control challenges to his performance by enforcing the rules he favored about when and how to attack.
Well, Mr. Voeckler, as a fan all I can say is “thanks.” Thanks for keeping racing exciting. Thanks for reminding us that the objective in racing is fundamentally to cross the finish line before the other guys. Thanks for calling out the jerks in the peloton. And best wishes in all your races this year. Perhaps you can take that one extra step from 4th to 3rd, and end up on the podium in Paris.
We’ll be rooting for you.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.