The bartender in Aigurande was so thrilled with Thomas Voeckler's stage win, his second of this Tour, that she declined payment for my menthe a l'eau, the first time that has happened to me in France. She was as overcome with glee as the announcer who gushed "extraordinaire, extraordinaire" as he crossed the line over a minute ahead of his nearest competitor with his arms open and outstretched as if he was offering up this victory for all of France.
After he crossed the line the announcer sighed and then unleashed an even longer series of "Mercis," thanking Voeckler for not only France's fifth win in The Race, but also for his monumental effort, dropping his last breakaway companion a few kilometers before the summit of the day's final climb up the Peyresourde, and then soloing in on the ten-mile descent to the finish. It was a most heroic ride that thrilled everyone watching it. Not only did he win the stage, but he recaptured the climber's jersey, just as he did on his previous win a week ago in similar fashion.
And the announcer who interviewed Voeckler moments after his win was equally carried away, also giving him thanks for a performance that reflected grandly on the entire French nation and the great sport of cycle racing that allows such heroics. One can't imagine even the most homer of American sports announcers responding in such a fashion. They might offer congratulations to an athlete, but thanks, never. But so it is with the French and also with cycle racing. It is an arena where racers can give such an all-out, sacrificial effort that followers of the sport respond with more than applause. They virtually bow with reverence to honor how hard they have tried.
With this second great effort this year Voeckler establishes himself as a seminal figure in the current era. He is no longer the racer who wore the yellow jersey for ten days in 2004 by a fluke, and then repeated the effort last year, and over the years has been more of a gadfly, with his periodic attacks and breakaway efforts, than a real threat. One can now regard him as one of the most daring and gutsy riders of his time. He comes to race, not to just sit in and watch and maybe occasionally make an attack. He is a rider who when he makes a plan of attack, goes all-out to achieve it. He saw that the climber's jersey was there for the taking earlier in The Race and then again on this stage. Anyone in The Race could have gone for it, but he was the one who accomplished it. He has truly brought glory to himself and to the sport.
He may have had a little extra motivation in this Tour, as Laurent Jalabert did not select him for France's Olympic team. Voeckler diplomatically said it did not bother him and that he could understand his reasoning, wishing to give some younger riders a chance. But he may be named to the team yet, as selectee Sylvain Chavanel bowed out of The Tour before the rest day with an unexplained fever. He wasn't sure if he would recover in time to be ready for the Games one week after The Tour ends. More than 40 riders have quit this year's Race, already more than last year and a much higher percentage than usual.
I was happy to be watching the stage in Aigurande, as I had at last descended from the Massif Central after three days of demanding ups and downs. From there it would be relatively flat into the Loire valley and to the start of the time trial, now less than 200 miles away. I have a further affection for Aigurande, as it was a Ville Etape last year that went to extremes with its decorations honoring The Tour. Its City Hall was adorned with yellow bunting and more, placards of racing greats lined a plaza and assorted mannequins relating to The Tour were scattered about the town. The most original was one of The Devil holding his pitchfork chasing after a mannequin on a bike wearing the polka dot jersey. I was hoping the town was proud enough of it to have left it standing, but none of the decorations remained. The Devil seems to be taking a pass on The Tour this year after being a permanent fixture of it for over twenty years.
Also absent is Skippy, missing his first Tour since 1989. Could be there is a contract on his head and he needs to lay low. He has engaged in a vendetta against those thugs who terrorize people along the route forcing mini-vinyl flags for a euro on them. They are not to be messed with. They are a mini-mafia. I've had several encounters this year with them and they always give me the creeps. The first was on stage two in Belgium. Andrew and I saw a pair of them pouncing on people in a supermarket parking lot. The police detained one of them, while the other managed to escape. I've also come upon them twice commandeering a round-about, holding up traffic and trying to get people to buy their flags. They are relentless and merciless.
While Voeckler has greatly enlivened The Race, Wiggins in the Yellow Jersey has been content to sit on the two minute lead he earned by winning the first time trial and will solidify in the final time trial on Saturday before The Race ends the next day in Paris. He's been riding steady on the wheel of his teammate Froome in the mountains, but steady enough to gain five minutes on Evans on this stage, knocking him all the way down to seventh, eleven seconds behind his young American teammate Van Garderen. As good a time trialist as Evans is, overtaking Andy Schleck last year in the final time trial to claim the Yellow Jersey, the podium is now out of his reach. It was pretty much solidified today as Wiggins, Froome and Nibali stuck together and rode away from everyone except those in the breakaway group. The Race is essentially over, though the beauty of the sport remains. I will be no less attentive to it without any suspense. Every stage is an opportunity for what will be now known as Voeckler-type heroics.