In all the fuss surrounding Lance Armstrong’s use of illegal performance-enhancing substances and techniques, one man’s contribution to the fascinating sport of cycling stands in danger of being overlooked.
In 2004, a young French rider – Thomas Voeckler – brought an unexpected level of excitement to the Tour de France when, at the finish of Stage 4, he took the leader’s yellow jersey and held it until the end of Stage 14. It was an exceptional, enthralling effort, with Voeckler yielding only at his last gasp in the French Alps and having to pass the jersey to Lance Armstrong as the new race leader.
To most of us who follow the sport, Thomas was then still a comparatively unknown quantity.
Armstrong was Le Patron. He’d won the race five times and – despite Voeckler’s audacious stint in yellow – was on course for his fifth victory.
I was in France for that 2004 Tour, to watch the individual time trial up and round the 21 hairpins of the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, and saw the excitement for myself.
I had gone to bear witness to Armstrong, but straightaway saw that Voeckler might well eclipse him.
To begin with, Thomas was young, he was French and, at a time when doping was less of an issue, he was presumed ‘clean’. Desperate for a home-grown hero to match the by-then-discredited Richard Virenque, the people of France had taken little Tommy V to their hearts and have adored him ever since.
I, too, was enchanted.
Standing at a hairpin bend on the lower slopes of L’Alpe, photographing some of the athletes as they rode by one-by-one, I waited until he came in sight and got off just one frame. He was in the coveted white jersey awarded to the youngest, highest-placed rider in the peloton. And he looked like what he was: a courageous boy in a man’s race.
Minutes later, Armstrong hove into view. Not wanting to miss a moment of the experience of being in what had become his commanding aura, I stood transfixed as he rode powerfully towards the hairpin, his face a mask of concentration. As he raced towards it’s apex, I darted across the bend to see him power out of the turn and up the next part of the climb.
I didn’t take his photograph, but the memory is etched on my mind.
Last year, little Tommy V captured our hearts all over again.
Seven years older, and against all the odds, he once more animated the Tour de France with his plucky riding and his never-say-die attitude.
Taking the yellow jersey at the completion of Stage 9, he held it all the way to the end of Stage 19, which – in an intriguing twist of fate – finished at the summit of L’Alpe d’Huez.
Once again he had animated the race. And yet again he had done it without a hint of doping or cheating of any other kind.
He simply rode his heart out to finish fourth when the Tour finally ended in Paris.
This year, after thrilling contests in the Pyrenees, he won the King of the Mountains competition, having won two Stages along the way.
Today, while Tommy V remains a hero at least to the French if not the rest of the world, Lance Armstrong – once acknowledged as an exceptional athlete – now looks like an exceptional cheat; the leading man at the heart of a drama described by the US Anti-Doping Agency as “the deepest, most sophisticated and successful doping programme [cycling] has ever seen”.
Voeckler may – for some – have an unpronounceable name, but Armstrong’s duplicitous behaviour begs the question: shall we ever understand the true meaning of ‘clean’?
It is, after all, an anagram of Lance.