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French National Championships - CN
Vallee Du Champsaur, France, June 24-27, 2004
Day 3 - June 27: Elite Men's Road Race, 224 km
For Voeckler and Brioches La Boulangère, strength and numbers win the day
By Chris Henry
If it weren't sky-high to begin with, Thomas Voeckler's confidence heading into the Tour de France in just one week's time will be tough to match. The 25 year old Brioches La Boulangère rider, who last week celebrated his birthday by winning the final stage of the Route du Sud, claimed his first national title Sunday in Pont-du-Fossé, France, succeeding his teammate Didier Rous as he dons the tricolore jersey for the coming year. Voeckler outsprinted two breakaway companions, Phonak's Cyril Dessel and Crédit Agricole's Benoît Salmon, after the trio with nearly 80 kilometres to race to the finish and profited from the nuanced team tactics of a national championship race that played out behind.
For Voeckler, and his team director Jean-René Bernaudeau, the significance of a young victor was not to be downplayed. Bernaudeau couldn't contain his emotion when Voeckler crossed the line, and the team's spirit was evident as each teammate who arrived found the winner to congratulate him, no hard feelings evident despite the fact that La Boulangère counted more than a few potential champions.
"What I want to show most today is that I'm a young rider, and it's a young rider who's won," Voeckler told French television after his victory. "I speak for everybody who loves cycling. With all the problems facing the sport right now, we need something new and to show that cycling is not just about problems. For me it's a nice reward, and for the people who continue to support us, particularly the Brioches La Boulangère team."
Voeckler added that the win was one for the team following the accident of Michaël Pichon in the Dauphiné Libéré and the team's unexpected need to search for a new sponsor for 2005.
For Cyril Dessel, who rode brilliantly all day, losing the sprint to Voeckler was a tough blow. Dessel had hoped to take the French title, motivated in large part by the frustration of being kept off Phonak's team for the Tour de France. Dessel showed he is indeed in excellent condition, and aside from spending nearly half the race in the front positions, he fought back from tough attacks from both Salmon and Voeckler on the final climb to keep himself in contention for the win. The best sprinter of the three on paper, Dessel lacked the final punch needed to get the better of the raging Voeckler as the three saved their sprint for the final 250 metres.
"Today I really wanted to to well because I was very abruptly dropped from the Tour team Wednesday night, which hurt a lot," Dessel said. "I think today I showed once again that my form is very good and that I deserve to be at the Tour, and that I have the character to get some big results. I hope this has an impact on the decision of the directeurs sportifs... Who knows, we'll see."
How it unfolded
With its usual strength in numbers- fifteen riders at the start of today's race, Brioches La Boulangère was the team to beat. And it was very much La Boulangère's race to lose. On the tough 22.4 kilometre circuit around the Champsaur valley it was Sylvain Chavanel who helped get the team's train in motion, creating some early splits and eventually forming a break of six riders, including three teammates. Chavanel moved clear and was joined by Voeckler, Jérôme Pineau and Laurent Lefèvre, with Sandy Casar (FDJeux.com) and Dessel along for company.
The casualties piled up early on the demanding circuit, and the race became less a question of break versus peloton, rather a series of counter attacks and chase groups stretched along the road. In the first group chasing Chavanel and Voeckler were Salmon, Richard Virenque (Quick.Step-Davitamon), Frédéric Bessy (Cofidis), Christophe Oriol (Ag2r-Prévoyance), and of course some more members of the Boulangère mob: Maryan Hary and Walter Beneteau.
Trapped in the following chase group was Crédit Agricole leader Christophe Moreau, showing good form but finding himself trapped behind splits and in a defensive position with Salmon ahead. The second and third groups eventually came together, at which point Moreau decided the time had come to take the race in his own hands. Unlucky for him, Salmon was riding his own aggressive race and steadily moving himself to the front as well.
As the second two groups combined, Lefèvre attacked the leaders and was followed only by Dessel, behind whom Voeckler struck up the chase along with Salmon, who timed the junction perfectly when various groups fused together. Voeckler and Salmon caught Dessel and Lefèvre on the sixth trip up the principal difficulty of the course, making a new leading foursome. As Voeckler forced the pace, his teammate Lefèvre dropped off, sealing what would become the winning move.
The advantage of the three leaders over the expanded group behind remained modest, partly due to Moreau's pace-setting in this group, despite the presence of Salmon up front. With three and a half laps to go, the lead hovered at just over a minute, but it quickly became apparent that an organised chase from behind would not come easily.
La Boulangère had a tight grip on the main group with eight riders, including the exceptionally strong Chavanel, who never offered as much as a grimace on the toughest portions of the climb. Moreau resigned himself to letting Salmon have his chances in the break, leaving Virenque and Casar as the sole representatives of their teams capable of making any moves. Outmuscled and outnumbered, they bided their time in the main group. All the while, the gap began to grow and with two laps to go the leaders had nearly six minutes in hand.
Dessel, Salmon and Voeckler each worked tirelessly to maintain this lead, knowing that team tactics would play in the favour and prevent any major chase. Finally in the last 30km a new chase group did form as Casar tried in vain to salvage his chances for the jersey. Joined by Bessy, Auber 93's Yannick Talabardon, and La Boulangère watchdog Chavanel, this new group of four distanced the main group but did little to chip away at the break's advantage.
Into the final circuit, it was clear to the leaders that the race was all but decided. Knowing that, the cooperation ended and the attacks began. Salmon was the first to break the grip, attacking on the final climb and dropping his two companions. Dessel struggled to lift the pace but the scrappy Voeckler clawed his way up to Salmon's wheel, following for several minutes before assuming his own responsibility to keep the move going. Dessel was the danger man in the sprint, so both riders were eager to bid him adieu. Dessel wasn't discouraged, however, and rode within himself to slowly pull back Salmon and Voeckler shortly before the climb's summit.
Showing both strength and intelligence, Voeckler launched his own counter once he saw Dessel coming back and began the plunge to the finish. His gap wasn't big enough, and the trio once more reformed with 12 downhill kilometres remaining. All three kept the pressure on as they headed to an eventual sprint, and with time in hand over Chavanel, who had dropped Casar and company on the climb, the cat and mouse tactics started early.
As Salmon tried to recuperate whatever strength he had left for the sprint, Dessel and Voeckler marked each other, artfully trying to keep the other in first position. Slowing to a crawl in the final kilometre, Voeckler had the last say. With a deft touch of the brakes he forced Dessel to swing wide behind him, and in the process was able to re-insert himself in second position. Dessel was forced to start the sprint and lead out the other two, and though he gave it everything he had, Voeckler had the answer and the final kick necessary to win by a length, becoming France's new national champion.
Images by AFP
1 Thomas Voeckler (Brioches La Boulangère) 5.36.38 (39.92 km/h) 2 Cyril Dessel (Phonak) 3 Benoît Salmon (Crédit Agricole) 4 Sylvain Chavanel (Brioches La Boulangère) 3.15 5 Sandy Casar (Fdjeux.com) 4.08 6 Yannick Talabardon (Auber 93) 7 Frédéric Bessy (Cofidis) 8 Anthony Charteau (Brioches La Boulangère) 4.41 9 Walter Bénéteau (Brioches La Boulangère) 10 Frédéric Gabriel (MrBookmaker-Palmans) 5.02 11 Christophe Oriol (Ag2r Prévoyance) 5.07 12 Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak) 5.23 13 Franck Rénier (Brioches La Boulangère) 14 Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole) 15 Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole) 5.32 16 Richard Virenque (Quick.Step-Davitamon) 17 Maryan Hary (Brioches La Boulangère) 5.35 18 Didier Rous (Brioches La Boulangère) 19 Laurent Lefèvre (Brioches La Boulangère) 20 Sébastien Joly (Crédit Agricole) 11.54 21 Christophe Agnolutto (Ag2r Prévoyance) 16.48 22 Gilles Bouvard (RAGT Semences-MG Rover) 23 Christophe Rinero (RAGT Semences-MG Rover) 24 Stéphane Bergès (Ag2r Prévoyance) 17.14