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

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week