BELLEGARDE-SUR-VALSERINE, France – Thomas Voeckler nearly opted out of the Tour de France weeks ago because of an injured knee. Two days before the start, he was pained even more over allegations of doping by his French team.
On Wednesday, the crowd-pleasing Frenchman gave his response – by winning the 10th stage.
An in-your-face, trash-talking atmosphere dominated as riders entered the Alps with Bradley Wiggins retaining the yellow jersey by squashing attacks by rivals – one of whom complained that the Briton was being disrespectful.
The mood was decidedly sour before the 120.9-mile ride began along three hard climbs, after Tuesday’s rest day was marred by an arrest by French police of a Cofidis team rider over a Marseille doping investigation.
Doping cases past and present have cast a shadow over this Tour.
Voeckler, too, was burdened by the issue of doping. Two days before the Tour start, a French newspaper brought to light a probe of his Europcar team on allegations of improper use of a controlled corticoid by its riders during the 2011 Tour – a claim the team vigorously denies.
Some fans in Belgium, where the Tour started on June 30, booed Europcar riders following the news.
Voeckler’s victory was “really special because we had criticism before the Tour, because it really hurt me,” he said. His victory “is a part of my answer – not my revenge – an answer” to the critics.
Wiggins, too, and his Team Sky sent a message: Getting the yellow jersey off him won’t be easy. Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, one of several rivals who tried to strip it, complained of a lack of respect from the Briton.
At several points during the stage, Wiggins came under attack from his rivals, but most failed to make up any ground. Nibali tried to surge ahead in a big descent, Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck attempted to jump ahead on the day’s big climb, and reigning champion Cadel Evans tried to shake Wiggins near the end — to no avail.
“Wiggins looked at me at the finish, and I really did not like the way he did it,” said Nibali, who won the Spanish Vuelta in 2010 and is fourth overall at the Tour. “He also gestured with his hand in an unpleasant way. They are really strong at the moment, but he should show more respect for his competitors.”
Sky has controlled the Tour in a style reminiscent of that of the former U.S. Postal team of Lance Armstrong, who is facing allegations by U.S. anti-doping officials that he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Wiggins has bristled at the comparison of the teams in social media.
Notably after the new Cofidis case, the Briton said he understood questions on doping in cycling “from some parts of the media,” but he insisted he got to where he is through hard work.
“I don’t feel like I have to sit here and justify to everyone ... And that’s what really gets to me,” he said.