What we can all learn from Thomas Voeckler

Some background, and yes, this post will serve a larger message.

For the few of you left who have been reading me for a while, you know that, despite my baseball background, the Tour de France is my favorite sporting event in the world.

I first fell in love with it the year that Greg LeMond burst on the scene. Not the first American to ride the Tour (Jonathon Boyer was, LeMond, really the second) he was the first to ride on a powerhouse French team, La Vie Claire, and of course the first to win.

In his first great year, the first American team rode (7 Eleven), and on that team was Eric Heiden (now Dr. Eric Heiden) who had shattered every speed skating record in the world, and won every speed skating medal in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. If you don’t know him, it is hard to describe just how much of a sporting giant Heiden was. His victories are the equivalent of the man who wins the 100 meters, also winning the Olympic marathon.

Well, the first year Heiden raced, LeMond won, and Heiden couldn’t even finish. This giant couldn’t make it up the mountains and said, at the time, that nothing he had ever done could compare to the Tour. That was enough to reel me in.

Flash forward to this year. It was generally regarded that the Tour would be between Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, who was second the last two years, and Alberto Contador, the 3 time defending champion.

Also given some consideration was Cadel Evans, an Aussie who had also been the runner up twice in the past but who made the Tour his entire focus this year.

Others mentioned were Ivan Basso, the 2 time winner of the Giro d’Italia, the Italian equivalent of the tour, and perhaps an even harder race; Frank Schleck, Andy’s older brother; Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic Road racing champion; Chris Horner, an American on the powerful Radio Shack team who had just won the Tour of California; Bradley Wiggins another multiple Olympic track champion on his best all time form; Jurgen Van den Broeck, a Belgian, and a few others.

In the tour, the winner has the best combined time over 21 stages, 3 weeks of racing an average of about 125-150 miles a day including all sorts of climbing, sprints, individual time trials, etc.

Generally, the best climbers start their careers as climbing specialists and develop their time trialing skills to become overall winners.

The lesser riders will go all out, sacrificing their bodies for one day, to try and win ONE stage of the race (each stage is considered a separate race by the international cycling organizations).

French cycling has suffered greatly since LeMond’s mentor turned foe, Bernard Hinault, last won the tour in 1985.

Early in the race, Thomas Voeckler of the French Europcar team, went on a breakaway, and took the “yellow jersey”, the maillot jeune, the race lead.

It’s not unusual for a lesser rider to lead the race early on as the favorites actually don’t WANT to lead, because of the greater responsibility it places on them.

Voeckler has been a journeyman pro for 10 years or so. His most famous moments came as a young cyclist, when, in a similar situation he held the yellow jersey over Lance Armstrong. In that year, 2000, however, there were no imaginings of victory and he held the jersey during stages that were flat, when everyone finishes together. On the one mountain stage, the famed “Plateau de Beille” in the Pyrenees, he lost more than 5 minutes to Armstrong (more than a miles ride on flat ground).

This year, a similar thing happened. Voeckler went on a breakaway in the 9th stage of the Tour. That was the stage in which the most horrific crash took place, with a TV car hitting two of the other breakaway cyclists.

From the beginning of his days in the yellow, Voeckler said he had no chance to win the race. More than that, he said that, with the upcoming Pyrenees, he would hold the yellow only a day or two.

And then a funny thing happened. He tried. There is an old saying in the Tour, the yellow jersey makes you ride like two men.
Well, Voekler not only stayed with the storied climbers over the iconic Col de Tourmalet, the Col d’aubisque but this time he was right there on the Plateau de Beille, where he had lost 5 minutes to Armstrong.

Every day, he assured the now crazed French that he could not win the race, but that he would honor the Yellow Jersey.

And he continued to fight.

They had said he could not do it in the Pyrenees. In fact, to the commentators, it was almost a joke. There were new reasons every day why he still wore the yellow. And every day, Thomas Voekler got on his bike and pushed himself to do things he didn’t think he could.

And every day, he did.

They said that, of course, he made it through the steeper, but shorter climbs of the Pyrenees, but that the monsters of the Alps would destroy him. The leading commentator, Phil Liggett, who I love, actually said “When the Tour is over, you’ll need binoculars to see Voeckler”

Yesterday’s stage was called the queen of stages. The hardest stage in the history of this more than 100 year old race. 3 “Hor’s Category Climbs” meaning so long and steep as to not be able to be classified by the international standards.

Starting with the absurd Col D’ignol, and ending with the iconic Col de Galibier.

And yet, there was Thomas, to the cries of “Allez Thomas” (Go Thomas) from the French crowds, literally grinding his way up, evening dropping the 3 time champion, Alberto Contador, on the last climb up the Galibier.

When the stage ended, he had maintained a 15 second lead and his face was wracked with pain.

Finally, today, on the final stage in the Alps, back over the Galibier and the even more famous Alpe D’Huez (where LeMond had made his name) bad luck came his way. I won’t get into the racing strategy but he lost the lead and is now in fourth place.

The last time a French rider was as high as fourth in the Tour, was 1996, 15 year ago.

Voeckler, like the little engine that could, won over the hearts of the entire nation of France, and the entire cycling community. Even as one of his teammates and a fellow Frenchman, won the stage, Voeckler received the loudest cheers. It was said by the French, in their highest compliment, that he had defended the jersey with panache.

But more importantly, he won himself over. Every day he seemed as amazed as everyone else that he was able to match up with all of the prerace favorites.

There will be no trophy for Thomas Voeckler, at the end of the Tour de France, but there will be something more important.

In this day and age, we give trophies for everything. You finished 22d in the spelling bee in school? Here’s your ribbon and certificate of achievement. Your little league team finished 9th? Take that trophy young man!

But Voeckler showed us all that it is the effort to achieve, the journey to success that is it’s own reward. No trophy is necessary when you find that you can exceed even your own limitations simply by making the effort. When you aim for the best, and make your best efforts, you are always rewarded. It is the effort that matters. Eventually, the victories in life come.


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