When was the race won? In the final sprint for the literal explanation but Thomas Voeckler was easily beaten. He went into the finish with no theatrics, stunts or even facial expressions. The image above shows the Europcar rider and Jelle Wallays of Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise racing with less than 10km to go. Voeckler is hunched low and straining to produce the power and the the closer the finish got, the more a win would become elusive.
Wallays and Voecker went early in a group with Cesare Benedetti (NetApp-Endura), Julien Duval (Roubaix–Lille Métropole), Pierre Gouault (BigMat–Auber 93), Yoann Paillot (La Pomme Marseille) and Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty). Hardly a break of heavy hitters to make the bunch nervous but the peloton never gave them much room as the race sped ahead of the fastest schedule in the roadbook. They barely got more than five minutes and with 50km to go they only had 2.30.
It was on the hairpin bends of the Côte de Crochu that the lead group split with Wallays, Voeckler and Van Melsen left. With 20km to go it seemed the bunch was in control. But the rain and a series of crashes damaged the bunches chances. The damp roads suited a duo of riders while the chase was taking out some of those who might chase.
On to the Côte de Beausoleil and Voeckler put in an attack. It finished off Van Melsen but probably Voeckler’s hopes too as Wallays was able to follow with relative ease. Van Melsen looked cooked but had the trio arrived to the finish perhaps the wily Frenchman could have won. Sure the nominal odds are 33% to win among a trio but Voeckler could have riffed off the Belgian rivalry. Otherwise Voeckler was always going to struggle in a contest of power with the big Wallays.
Sep Vanmarcke took a flyer on the Beausoleil too. It was an incisive move that saw a group of 11 riders go clear with John Degenkolb among the first to respond. Should he have followed? It’s easy to debate afterwards and at the time he looked strong. If it split the field, the chase group had its splits in the tactical sense as nobody wanted to take Degenkolb to the finish while there are other riders strong in the sprint like Greg Van Avermaet. But it meant Giant-Shimano ran out of helpers, they only had Ramon Sinkeldam up front. The more modest Cyril Lemoine of Cofidis was a local and made more of an effort but the group ran out of steam. Meanwhile Arnaud Démare had been caught out, his positioning problematic, and then going rogue to later ride across the the Vanmarke-Degenkolb group.
With three kilometres the lead two had 29 seconds and the gap was stable. Wallays looked strong but Voeckler wasn’t himself, there was no fidgeting on the bike, his tongue wasn’t flicking like a snake. Instead he was just riding. Voeckler later told the radio he launched the sprint too early, cracking mentally. But he’d cracked long before. Certainly the pair’s slender advantage didn’t allow for many theatrics. Voeckler couldn’t afford to lose this, for himself and also for Europcar because the French team didn’t have a back-up plan in Bryan Coquard. Onto the Avenue de Grammont and Voeckler launched his sprint. Wallays sat on his wheel like a bored team mate getting a lead out and only when it was necessary did he jump, easily passing the Frenchman.
For the anecdote Wallays is the first rider to win the U23 and the main version of this race. But it’s the future that concerns Wallays. Topsport Vlaanderen is a development team and many of its riders are going to the World Tour for 2015, bigger races and bigger salaries. But not Wallays who told French television he felt left out and hoped this win would change things.
As for Voeckler, the man who loves the French crowds, he vanished for the podium ceremony leaving an empty step and forfeiting his prize money and getting fined. He did show up later but it was too late, just like his form this season. His broken collarbone in August’s Tour du Limousin meant he lacked the endurance today. It’s been a season to forget with two broken collarbones and not a single win, his first blank season since 2002. He’s 35 and not getting any faster.
The end of the season is packed with often underrated races and this weekend had the Giro dell’Emilia with its stunning finish up to the San Luca Sanctuary above Bologna. Tours doesn’t have the geography or history to rival Bologna but its tight finish is a case study in how you take an old race and make it exciting. Why do we watch bike races?
- The sport used to celebrate distance, connecting Paris and Tours in an era when there was no direct railway line
- Later crowds would flock to see the spectacle before television appeared
- Today the race has to compete against other channels, shows and activities so suspense and drama are needed.
The irony is a 240km race where only the action’s reserved for the final tenth of the course. But the distance is essential rather than the enduring legacy of tradition. The late hills are so tiny they make Milan-Sanremo’s Poggio seem Alpine but after 230km these climbs and their narrowness are just enough to prevent a bunch sprint. It’s now 16 breakaways versus 11 bunch sprints since the race moved to the Avenue de Grammont. While the World Tour gets a taste of Beijing’s pollution this old-fashioned race from 1896 can still match the best.