Pierre Rolland of Europcar, who this afternoon won an enthralling Stage 19 of the Tour de France on the Alpe d’Huez, has revealed that he had the full blessing of team leader Thomas Voeckler, whose ten-day spell in the maillot jaune came to an end today.
The 24-year-old Rolland has been Voeckler’s near-constant companion over the past week and a half, helping the race leader to get up the big climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees.
“I said I wanted to do everything possible to defend the yellow jersey of Thomas but on the climb of the Galibier, he told me, ‘Seize your chance, don’t worry about me’,” explained Rolland afterwards, adding, “This is also where I see that he is a great champion, one who was able to tell me to go at the right time.”
While the attention of the nation and cycling fans around the world has been firmly focused on Voeckler, Rolland has been quietly and unselfishly going about his own business and his performances saw him move to within 33 seconds of best young rider classification leader Reim Taaramae of Cofidis at the start of this morning’s stage.
When Voeckler, who had been dropped by Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck on the Telegraphe, finally cracked on the Galibier and dropped back to – and straight through – the group containing several other riders towards the top of the GC as well as Rolland, it was time for the French team to switch to Plan B.
Rolland in the white jersey would have been consolation enough, and the 24-year-old from Gien in the Loire Valley now leads Taaramae by 1 minute 33 seconds. A stage victory on arguably the most prestigious summit finish in cycling is quite another, and it also means that the 2011 Tour will not go down in history alongside those of 1926 and 1999 in producing no French stage winners.
Today also looked likely to produce a foreign stage winner as the man who now had the maillot jaune, Andy Schleck, and defending champion Alberto Contador led the race over the Galibier, with Rolland one of the riders chasing hard behind to reel them in, and the main contenders – minus Voeckler – approached the foot of the Alpe d’Huez together.
“I immediately wanted to prepare myself for something by attacking in the valley,” said Rolland of getting the go-ahead from his team to ride for himself, not to defend the maillot jaune. “Still, this is a climb that I know very well one that I’ve reconnitoired more than a dozen times last year,” he continued.
The Europcar man, together with Garmin-Cervelo’s Ryder Hesjedal, were the first to attack on the Alpe d’Huez, but they would soon be passed by Contador as the Saxo Bank-SunGard rider again attacked his rivals.
The Spaniard, who has endured a difficult Tour as a result of being delayed behind or involved in crashes, the tiredness of a tough Giro d’Italia from which he emerged overall winner, the stress of his forthcoming appeal hearing and a knee injury, at least appeared to be heading towards the consolation of a stage win as he passed under the 5 kilometre to go banner on his own.
Rolland, by now joined by Samuel Sanchez, had other ideas however, and with less than 3 kilometres to go, he and the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider had caught the defending champion.
“When I found myself with two Spaniards, I knew they knew each other very well,” admitted Rolland, “So I told myself that I would not finish second, it was win or nothing.
“I knew at turn one I could push the big chainring early on this climb at such a pace because I did it many times in training,” he added. “This is a stage that I’ve watched dozens of times on video, with Armstrong, Pantani... I studied their cadence. And now it’s me who has won! It will take me a little time before I realize what I’ve done.”
On the day when French hopes faded of Voeckler becoming the first home rider since Bernard Hinault in 1986 to wear the maillot jaune in Paris, Rolland has immediately appeared as a ready made hero and is already being spoken of as the country’s big hope for the future.
While today represented the biggest win of his brief career, he has previously topped the mountains classifications in both the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Criterium Internationale, and his climbing ability is not lost on the French media.
“As for the suggestions that I could win the Tour de France... well, we must not forget that I’m only 24, and I have 10 wonderful years,” he commented. “I know I’m going to train to be at the highest level, and not have regrets when my career is over.”
For now, however, Europcar will be celebrating a win at one of the Tour’s most famous finish lines that caps a hugely successful Tour for them, irrespective of whether Rolland goes on to secure the maillot jaune.
Just 12 months ago, the team’s future was hanging in the balance after former backer Bbox Bouygues Telecom decided not to renew its sponsorship, and the loyalty of Voeckler, who had received other offers but continued to support team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau, led to Europcar coming on board.
The car hire company has enjoyed a spectacular return on its investment, its name appearing on pictures of Voeckler in the maillot jaune appearing on televisions, websites and in newspapers and magazines all over the world in the last fortnight, and Rolland’s win today will have come as a very welcome bonus.
Sanchez, who finished second to Rolland today, has the consolation of having secured the mountains classification, and said afterwards: “On the ascent of Alpe d’Huez, Alberto went first then I followed a little later and I took Pierre Rolland with me, but didn’t manage to win the stage. This morning I first wanted to see if I had recovered well from yesterday’s stage, which was a bad day for me.
“It is always matter of pride to be on the podium in Paris. And I now wear a jersey with some prestige – it’s a victory for me and for my team. I take it as a reward for all the work that has been done on this Tour. Now I think back and I’ll see what state I am tomorrow for the race again the clock, and with what aim.
“If I must take stock, it is far from negative: I’ve won a beautiful stage to Luz Ardiden, taken the the polka-dot jersey and I finished in the top 10 of the Tour de France. I think Jelle Vanendert had a bad time on the ascent of the Galibier, but he will be a true force to be considered in the coming years.”
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