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91st Tour de France - July 3-25, 2004
St Flour, July 15, 2004
The Fabulous Baker Boys from Brioches La Boulangère
Different course but a big result
They may have lost their highest profile acquisition and a potential Tour winner in Joseba Beloki, but as Chris Henry reports, it hasn't stopped the fabulous baker boys from Brioches La Boulangère riding a superb Tour de France so far.
Brioches La Boulangère isn't riding the Tour de France team they had planned at the start of the year. The acquisition of Joseba Beloki from ONCE-Eroski, second overall in 2002, was a move designed to catapult the team of young attacking French riders into a team which could challenge for the podium - or victory - in France's biggest race.
Beloki, still recovering from his injuries from last summer when he crashed out of the 2003 Tour, came back to competition in the spring but remained largely invisible, abandoning races or postponing competition due to tendonitis, lack of form, and ultimately, disagreements within the team. The short-lived partnership came to a close as Beloki was released from his contract, forfeited this year's Tour, and set off to find a new team for the Vuelta a España.
La Boulangère thus came back to the Tour with a similar roster to recent years, full of aggressive riders capable of making the most of a breakaway, though not contenders for the general classification. The team found success in the week before when 25 year-old Thomas Voeckler claimed the French national championship on the road, donning the tricolore jersey just in time for the national tour. Barely used to the accolades due his French title, Voeckler inserted himself in the winning move on Stage 5, taking over the yellow jersey as Lance Armstrong and US Postal Service opted not to defend the lead they had earned in the team time trial.
Voeckler has proved a worthy wearer of the jersey, holding on for nearly a week as the race moves south towards the Pyrénées mountains. A capable climber, he won a stage in the Route du Sud just weeks before the Tour, and could impress once again as the Tour hits the heavy slopes.
Brioches La Boulangère team manager Jean-René Bernaudeau has happily turned the page after the Beloki implosion, and sees this year's Tour as an opportunity to polish the image of his team as he searches for a replacement sponsor capable of carrying the group into the UCI's new Pro Tour.
"Beloki was to win the Tour de France but Beloki isn't here now, so the team is riding in a different manner," Bernaudeau told Cyclingnews as he waited for his yellow jersey Voeckler to finish stage 10. "But everything they've done so far has been fantastic. With Beloki we had a different strategy, a favourite for the Tour. He was here to accelerate our project, but only accelerate the project. Today we're doing well without him."
Voeckler rode strongly on the Tour's first day in the mountains, a long romp through the Massif Central on Wednesday, and his team, while not dominant, successfully defended the jersey on the toughest stage thus far.
"Walter, Franck, Laurent and Anthony Charteau did a lot of work," explained Voeckler's teammate Jérôme Pineau after the stage. "With Didier [Rous] and Laurent [Lefèvre] we did a good tempo on the Cat. 2 climb and we gave everything at the end. It was hard on the legs but we're happy, because I think tomorrow will be a lot easier to manage. As we had hoped, we'll get at least to the Pyrénées with the maillot jaune. That's what Thomas wanted; I think the team did an enormous job today."
Pineau is another strong young rider, who has shown he can climb as well as sprint, featuring in both finishing sprints (fourth on Stage 9) and taking points in the mountains classification as well. Pineau isn't eyeing the green or polka-dot jerseys, but white would suit him just fine.
"Pineau is for the maillot blanc," Bernaudeau confirmed. "He can ride for it for two more years. Plus [Sylvain] Chavanel is in his last year for it..."
Bernaudeau paused with a big smile.
"It's an objective, yes. To get the maillot blanc in Paris, after having the maillot jaune now, that would be a fabulous Tour. Fabulous."
With several cards to play for stage wins or the young rider classification, and a Frenchman already in the yellow jersey, La Boulangère is earning its Tour glory without relying on the Beloki project trumpeted so loudly in the off-season.