Tour de France - Tommy the trickster makes light of 'injury'
Blazin' Saddles doffs a cap in the direction of stage 10 winner Thomas Voeckler, who made light of his fitness problems on two fearsome climbs.
If you say something long enough then people will begin to believe you. So goes the old adage – seemingly one that's big in the Voeckler household.
For days, nay weeks, Thomas Voeckler's been harping on about the poor state of his knee – and then he goes and digs deep into the depths of his panache stash, pulling off an outstanding stage 10 win without even the use of a knee support.
We were led to believe that every pedal stroke produced a stabbing sensation through his tendinitis-ravaged joint, that his very participation was in jeopardy. Heck, there was even talk of his French housewives crown passing on to much-younger countryman Thibaut Pinot.
From a Europcar team that had been on the attack pretty much every day, Voeckler was the one rider who had not spent considerable chunks of time up the road in breaks. Things must be bad if an attacking team's habitually most attacking live-wire seemed permanently switched off and out the back.
How much change a rest day can make. It was as if Voeckler had packed his knee off for a two-week holiday on a beach in Tenerife and it had come back refreshed, full mended and eager to go.
Saddles has a lot of time for Voeckler. He may at times look like a clown on wheels; he may have the style and grace of Napoleon Dynamite when performing his Canned Heat dance; he may have a tongue that behaves like that of a Labrador on a hot day. But take Thomas Voeckler to the Tour de France and he will guarantee you passion, dedication and breakaways. He will also either deliver you a stage win or a jersey – perhaps both.
Wednesday's win was classic Voeckler – a rider whose cunning and tactical nous is often disguised by his ungainly style and cherubic face.
Voeckler spoke afterwards of how he simplified his ambitions for the day: getting in the break was the priority, then taking the polka dot jersey, then winning the stage. He passed all three tests with flying colours.
It was Voeckler's relentless digs on the front of the large initial break group which made the selection of four riders on the early precipitous slopes of the Col du Grand Colombier. Chaotic climbing is one of the new weapons in the Voeckler armoury following last year's career-defining ride in yellow. In a group which included the experienced Luis Leon Sanchez and Michele Scarponi, it was Voeckler calling the shots.
Saddles feared a burn-out, however. His fellow escapees refused to play his game. One memorable moment saw Voeckler look back and urge Dries Devenyns forward; the Belgian looked him in the eye and shook his head as if Voeckler had simply asked him the time.
Once the foursome had made the final descent – after Voeckler had picked up maximum KOM points over the Grand Colombier and Richemond climbs to secure the polka dot jersey – they were joined by another battle-scarred shrewd tactician in Jens Voigt.
The German veteran tried to take the group by surprise with an early dig, but Voeckler et al were not going to bow down to their elder. When Devenyns made his game-changing break inside the final 4km, everyone looked at Voeckler as if it was up to him to lead the chase.
But Little Tommy V refused. It was a gamble – for Develyns was pulling further ahead – but it was a calculated risk of the kind most riders (Saddles is thinking particularly of Johnny Hoogerland, for instance) do not have the poise or gumption to pull off.
Voigt cracked and rode off in pursuit, and then Voeckler timed his own decisive counter attack with perfection – catching Voigt under the 'flamme rouge' before leaving Devenyns for dead.
It wasn't so much a panache-dash to the line as a gradual uphill creep – the final 200m brought, it seemed, the riders to a near-standstill. It was as if we were watching the action in slow motion.
"No one would help me push on the climbs, they just sat on my wheel. That annoyed me, but it also inspired me," said Voeckler (using the same bizarre logic that would see Saddles inspired by crowded public transport, split tea bags and the loud ticking of a clock).
"Every time I sped, the others followed, and when someone attacked, I was the one to chase. So when Devenyns attacked, I told them to go without me. Coming into the finish, I waited for my moment and then went."
Explaining the huge effort he had put in, Voeckler said in French, "Je me suis sorti des tripes". This, rather than a reference to the Europcar celebratory offal banquet, was Voeckler's colourful way of saying, "I turned myself inside out" – which was certainly how he looked on the Grand Colombier.
Voeckler's face on coming home to take the win was a mixture of ecstasy and relief. "When I crossed that line, I felt such a rush," he beamed. "My knees hurt, everything hurts, but I couldn’t give up.”
Come on, Tommy! Don't expect us to still believe you actually had dodgy knees. It is okay to have a bad 10 days in the saddle, you know – even when the weight of a nation is riding on your shoulders.
"I wasn't acting!" he stressed after his third career Tour win. "Although some people said there was nothing wrong with me, everything I said about my knee was true. I tell people exactly how it is. But I don't care what people say about me."
Well, Ti-Blanc, let Saddles tell you a little bit of what people say about you: the cycling world (the fans, that is, perhaps not your fellow riders) can't get enough of you. You're a credit to the sport, a peerless asset to your team and an inspiration to many. Don't change anything – especially not the gamut of facial expressions and frequent appearances of your tongue.
Voeckler now equals the record of three Tour stages held by fellow current French riders Sandy Casar, Sylvain Chavanel and Pierrick Fedrigo. He also adds a third stint in polka dots to his two 10-day stretches in yellow. This is pretty impressive from someone who on first appearances wouldn't look out of place in the local circus.
Last year, Voeckler missed out on mounting the podium in Paris by a matter of seconds after dropping out of the top three and finishing fourth.
If somehow he can replicate the dogged climbing of his 2011 Tour in yellow in his current Tour now in polka dots, perhaps Voeckler will be able to taste what it's like to mount a podium on the Champs Elysees after all.
"I thought about 'Chartix' (Europcar's Anthony Charteau) and how he got to Paris in 2010 with the polka dot jersey. If it happened to him, I tell myself I can also try. I will not let it go easily."
The first 10 days may have been cruel for Voeckler, but the Tour has really only just begun.