Thomas Voeckler of Europcar is the surprise leader of the Tour de France this evening after the peloton, made nervous by a crash that saw several riders crash out of the race, let a break stay away on Stage 9 of the race from Issoire to St Flour today.
The Frenchman, who spent ten days in the race leader’s jersey in 2004, had started the day 19th in the overall standings, 1 minute 29 seconds down on Thor Hushovd, who had led the race since Garmin-Cervelo won the team time trial in Les Essarts last Sunday.
Despite somehow holding onto the maillot jaune on yesterday’s Stage 8 to Super-Besse Sancy, a succession of categorised climbs on today’s parcours, eight of them in all, meant the Norwegian was certain to lose the overall lead today.
Few would have predicted that Voeckler would be the man to take it over, let alone by such an emphatic margin – the 32-year-old, originally from Alsace but now living in the Vendée region where his team is based, now leads the race by 1 minute 49 seconds from second placed Luis Leon Sanchez, winner of today’s stage, and by 2 minutes 26 seconds from third-placed Cadel Evans.
The French public did have faith in the popular rider, however, as he explained afterwards: “During the stage – all day long – there were people on the side of the road yelling at me: ‘Allez Thomas! Maillot jaune!’ And I was thinking, ‘Yeah, it would be great but it would be hard to take it.’”
It appeared that the six-man break was doomed to failure, but in the aftermath of the crash that took riders such as Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov and Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck out of the race, the peloton let the gap move out again.
“When I saw that we had a gap of seven minutes, I said to myself, ‘Maybe...’,” continued Voeckler, who is nicknamed ‘Le chochou,’ which roughly translate’s as ‘France’s sweetheart.’
“In the last 60 kilometers, I told my sports director, ‘What do we have to do? Try to win the stage or only think about the jersey – but with any guarantee...?’”
“And he said to me, ‘Okay, ride for the overall!’ “So I rode and rode and rode and I was very happy in the final kilometers and when I crossed the line and I understood that I have taken the yellow jersey.”
The rider is pragmatic about his chances of keeping the race lead, however.
“When you only have two minutes on a rider like Cadel Evans in the overall, I have to be realistic,” he admitted
“I’m not a dreamer, I will just fight and give all that I can. I know it’s impossible for me to keep the lead for 10 days like in 2004 but one thing is sure – tomorrow I can keep the jersey because it’s a rest day."
Voeckler’s Europcar team also finds itself top of the team standings tonight, replacing Garmin-Cervelo who had a number of riders involved in crashes including David Zabriskie, who abandoned with a broken wrist.
The French outfit, previously sponsored by Bbox Bouygues Telecom, had seemed destined to disappear at the end of last season after that sponsorship came to an end.
The loyalty of Voeckler, winner of a Stage 15 of last year’s Tour, to Jean-René Bernaudeau’s outfit was said to have been influential in persuading the car hire business to back the team.
Voeckler came up through its development system, starting with the Vendée U feeder team, which he joined in 1999.