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)
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