Tour de France: 'Voeckler is a courageous lad. It could be 1956 all over again'

55 years ago, an unfancied rider stayed in yellow all the way to Paris. Can it happen once more?

Can local hero Thomas Voeckler make it to yellow in Paris is the question that virtually every French cycling fan is asking this week.

If Tour history is anything to go by, and despite suffering on yesterday's final climb, the answer could – just – be yes.

The previous running of the Tour de France which arguably bears most parallels to this year is that of 1956, won by a complete outsider, Roger Walkowiak, after the Frenchman gained a solid advantage in a first-week break and then – like Voeckler – managed to stay in contention on each of the key mountain stages.

Just as this year, too, with neither three-times Tour winner Alberto Contador nor Andy Schleck at their best, there was a power vacuum in 1956. The triple Tour champion, Louison Bobet, from 1953 to '55, was missing from the bunch due to an extremely painful groin operation.

"This is quite a bit like 1956 all over again," Yorkshireman Brian Robinson – considered the pioneer for British cycling in the Tour de France, and who finished 14th that year – tells The Independent. "By and large you've got all the top guys watching each other like they were then. They're going to have to get a move on if they want to do something."

Given Contador and Evans had a minor dig yesterday, albeit to limited effect, Robinson points out that the historical parallels can only go so far, adding that "there was also a big conflict between Walkowiak and another [better-known] French rider, Gilbert Bauvin".

But just as with the pint-sized Voeckler taking on the far more established Tour stars, back in 1956 there was a definite sense of Walkowiak being a giant-killer, too.

As Robinson recalls, Bauvin, riding for the high-powered French national team, finished second overall – while Walkowiak, a little like Voeckler in his low-budget Europcar squad, was racing in the extremely weak Nord-Est Centre regional squad.

"There are definite parallels, too, in terms of how the favourites underestimated Walkowiak, and how big a surprise it would be if Voeckler was to win," says L'Equipe's veteran cycling correspondent, Philippe Bouvet.

In neither case, Bouvet believes, were their Tour successes flukey – unlike, say, in 2006 when Spain's Oscar Pereiro was allowed to take hold of the yellow jersey with a "consented" break that took 30 minutes, and who eventually won after Floyd Landis was disqualified for doping.

"Walkowiak had already shown himself in the [warm-up race] Dauphiné Libéré, and he got into three or four breaks in the Tour, so you can't say he was lucky," Bouvet points out. "But Thomas wasn't 'gifted' the yellow jersey, either – he had to work in that break [on stage eight] to make sure it got away."

There are more similarities, too, in that in 2011 the pre-race favourites failed to dislodge Voeckler as soon as the Tour hit the mountains.

"I was surprised none of the big names made a move and attacked until they reached the top of the climbs in the Pyrenees," says Robinson – who himself, even into his mid-80s, was still riding up to four-hour rides once a week into the Yorkshire Dales.

But it takes more than the favourites' inertia – Contador's and Evans' late charges yesterday being the exception to the rule – to explain Voeckler's success.

Robinson believes, too, that just like in 1956 with Walkowiak, Voeckler's determination to stay on top of events has redoubled since he started leading the biggest bike race on the planet. "Like we say, though, with that [yellow] jersey on his back, he's another man."

The 1956 win was so unexpected that the phrase "gagner à la Walkowiak" became cycling shorthand in France for an outsider to win the race, with Spaniard Federico Bahamontes, who finished fourth that year, once calling Walkowiak "the least deserving winner of the Tour". "We [favourites] never gambled on him being so dangerous," added Bahamontes, "we never raced against him." Robinson recalls: "It was an odd race. You had no idea what was going to happen. Breaks would go and nobody really controlled anything, it was like a blank sheet of paper each day."

Walkowiak reportedly grew so upset with the criticisms of his victory that he faded out of bike racing within a few years, and Voeckler has already expressed worries that he will be unable to live a normal life afterwards.

"I was already a bit famous after [leading the Tour in] 2004," Voeckler told L'Equipe yesterday, "people would already follow me in my local supermarket.

"I don't want them stopping in front of my house [because of leading the Tour in 2011], or have to change my way of life."

So can Voeckler make it all the way to Paris in yellow? "It would be nice if he could," says Robinson, "he's a courageous lad.

"He hasn't got a lot of time, but if he hangs on and the favourites keep on looking at each other too much, it could be 1956 all over again."

The French drought

France may be the home of the Tour but it long ago ceased to be the natural home of Tour winners. Not since 1985 has a Frenchman worn the yellow jersey into Paris, when the Breton Bernard Hinault won the last of his fifth titles. Since then, only Laurent Fignon – beaten by eight seconds in 1989 – has come close.

Most recent French winners of the Tour:

1985 Bernard Hinault (fifth title)

1984 Laurent Fignon (second title)

1977 Bernard Thevenet (second title)

1967 Roger Pingeon

1966 Lucien Aimar

1964 Jacques Anquetil (fifth title)

Golden oldies: How does Robinson compare?

Athletics Ron Hill, the former marathon champion, is now 72 but has run at least a mile every day since 19 December, 1964 – even when he broke his sternum in a car crash. He has run the equivalent of more than six times around the world

Snooker Fred Davis was a multiple world champion who competed at the Crucible aged 70 in 1984

Football Brazilian Tercio Mariano de Rezende retired in 2007 aged 87

Golf In 1963, left-handed Bob Charles won the Open. In 2007, at the age of 71, the Kiwi made the cut in the New Zealand Open

Cricket WG Grace called time on his first-class career in his 60th year, playing his final game after his 66th birthday

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'