As well as the international award, Vélo Magazine offers a domestic prize to the best French rider of the year. For 2011 the choice was obvious, Thomas Voeckler. As ever this blog has a particular focus on French cycling so here’s a look at Voeckler’s season and the other contenders for the award.
The obvious highlight of the year for Voeckler was the Tour de France where he held the yellow jersey for ten days, defending it in the Pyrenees and the Alps and arguably a tactical mistake on the Col du Télégraphe during Stage 19, from Modane to Alpe d’Huez, cost him 3.22… and he finished in Paris 3.20 down on Andy Schleck. Certainly he missed out on the podium but that’s his style, he’s admitted regret but if he didn’t ride like this maybe he would never have taken the jersey in the first place.
But it wasn’t just the Tour de France. He had eight early seasons, including two stages in Paris-Nice. You sort of expected those results but then came the Giro di Trentino. A warm-up for the Giro d’Italia, this stage race has some big mountain stages. On Stage 2 he escaped with Michele Scarponi and outsprinted him for the win. Then came the summit finish to Madonna di Campiglio where he finished fourth, in company he normally would not keep. He then took the Four Days of Dunkerque. He’s had a fine season and the award for best French rider is surely undisputed.
Voeckler won the poll ahead of his team mate Pierre Rolland and track cyclist Grégory Baugé. Rolland had a great Tour de France, winning the white jersey for best young rider and ending up 11th overall and with the stage win on Alpe d’Huez, dropping Contador and Sanchez on the final slopes. Baugé is world champion in the sprint, and track sprint too and deserves recognition, indeed he won the prize outright in 2009.
Picking other French riders is hard. John Gadret stands out for his fourth place in the Giro d’Italia, including a stage win; this was a very big result for a French rider but got a bit overlooked by the French media (and ahem, this blog too, see the comments below). MTB Julien Absalon has won the award several times before but he’s not having things so easy this year. When you go down the rankings on Cycling Quotient and IG Markets Pro Cycling the next best road rider is Romain Feillu of Vacansoleil. A nice guy, he’s had seven sprint wins this year, plus the overall in the Tour de Picardie. In addition he made the top-5 in the Tour de France sprints.
Perhaps the biggest loser this year has been Sylvain Chavanel. This isn’t to be harsh, it’s just things have not gone his way. He did well in the Tour of Flanders with second place but the way he banged his handlebars after Nick Nuyens outfoxed him shows he’s a French rider who won’t settle for second place. He spent much of the early summer in monastic mode, staying in Font Romeu in the Pyrenees to train for the Tour de France. By all accounts he arrived in peak form for July, winning the French national championships in style after breaking the stranglehold of the Europcar, Cofidis and FDJ teams. But on Stage 5, the day when Edwald Boasson Hagen won, several Quick Step riders crashed and Chavanel came close to abandoning. He carried on in the race but rued the moment.
There are several riders who have positions on the rankings but are less visible. Take Jean-Christophe Péraud of Ag2r, he sits in 28th place on the World Tour rankings… just one place behind Mark Cavendish. But many would struggle to recognise Péraud if he walked down the street. Talented as he is, the former champion mountain biker amasses points via consistency, cracking the top-20 in stage races. He’s good but it’s not exactly French flair or panache. For that, Thomas Voeckler is the supreme example.