The Perpetual Neo-Pro

Can it be that Thomas Voeckler (BBox) is really 30 years old? Voeckler turned professional in 2000 at the age of 20, but only entered the broader public consciousness with his stint in the yellow jersey during the 2004 Tour. The product of a fifth stage giveaway break with no true contenders, Voeckler’s scrappy and surprising defense of that jersey for ten days, and the white jersey for four more, made him the talk of the Tour, especially as the GC was largely believed to be a foregone conclusion. Voeckler has never been a GC contender at the Tour, a fact he likely knows better than anyone, but that’s never kept him from seeking out more modest successes in July. In 2005, he grabbed the polka-dot jersey for a day, and last year, he nabbed that jersey again, this time holding onto it for several early stages. But yesterday, Voeckler finally grabbed the prize he wanted – his first Tour de France stage win. And to be honest, he doesn’t look to have aged a day since 2004.

Since that 2004 Tour, Voeckler has taken hold of the “scrappy underdog” label he earned there and parlayed it into a career as France’s lovable little brother of the peloton, a marked cultural break from that country’s prior love affair with the far oilier visage of Richard Virenque. To play the role to perfection, Voeckler has always carefully ensured that he has his heart firmly and self-consciously tacked to his sleeve and a slightly pained, earnestly Boy Scout-ish “I’m really trying my best” expression slapped across his mug whenever the going gets remotely rough. If it weren’t for the layer of stubble that occasionally appears on his chin, a close-up of his pain face could easily be mistaken for a junior taking his first road race ass-kicking.

While the facial contortions always seemed a bit contrived to me, they've certainly seemed to help Voeckler’s public image. But I’d also argue that his image has masked what has been a solidly good – if not flashy – professional career. By the time he wore yellow, he had already won the overall and two stages at the 2003 Tour of Luxembourg as well as the 2004 French national championship, along with a few more minor races. A quiet 2005 followed his Tour breakout, but since then he’s amassed a steady stream of wins in short French stages races, including the overall at the 2006 Route du Sud, the 2007 Tour du Poitou Charentes and the KOM at Paris-Nice, the 2008 Circuit de la Sarthe, and the 2009 Tour du Haut Var and Étoile de Bessèges. He’s also racked up a few stage wins, as well as solid French Cup wins in the 2007 Grand Prix Plouay, the 2008 Grand Prix de Plumelec, and the 2009 Trophèe des Grimpeurs.

No, it’s not the palmares of a superstar, littered with monuments and grand tours, but at 30 years old and in his 10th year in the professional ranks, Thomas Voeckler is no longer the aw-shucks-just-glad-to-be-here caricature of youthful enthusiasm he used to be. He’s a guy who knows how to win bike races, wrapped in the skin of a neo-pro. But while he’s getting older, and better, his expression (a genuine one this time) at yesterday’s finish showed that he still has his enthusiasm for the Tour, and for taking a chance for the big payoff, and I’m glad he finally got it. And when he finally retires – I’m guessing at age 36, at least – it will still come as a shock, if only because we won’t want to believe we’ve aged so much since little Tommy Voeckler wore yellow.