Weeks ago, Thomas Voeckler nearly opted out of the Tour de France because of an injured knee. Two days before the start, he was pained even more over allegations of doping at his French team.
On Wednesday, the crowd-pleasing Frenchman gave his response — by winning Stage 10.
An in-your-face, trash-talking atmosphere dominated as riders entered the Alps on Wednesday, with Bradley Wiggins retaining the yellow jersey by squashing attacks by his rivals — one of whom complained that the Briton was not being respectful.
The mood was decidedly sour before the 194km ride, after the previous day’s arrest by French police of a Cofidis team rider over a Marseille doping probe.
Doping cases past and present have cast a shadow over this Tour. Voeckler himself was burdened by the issue of doping.
Two days before the Tour started, a French newspaper revealed a previously unknown probe of his Europcar team on allegations of improper use of a controlled corticoid by its riders during last year’s 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, he said.
Wiggins, too, and Team Sky sent a message on Wednesday — getting the yellow jersey off him will not 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 biggest rivals — but nearly all failed to make any ground.
Nibali tried to surge ahead on a big descent; Belgium’s Jurgen van den Broeck attempted to jump ahead on the day’s big climb; reigning champion Cadel Evans tried to shake Wiggins near the end — but 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 Vuelta a Espana in 2010 and is fourth overall at the Tour. “He also gestured with his hand in an unpleasant way.”
“They [Team Sky] are really strong at the moment, but he should show more respect for his competitors,” Nibali said.
Sky have controlled the Tour in a style reminiscent of that of the former US Postal team of Lance Armstrong, who is facing allegations by US anti-doping officials that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Wiggins has bristled at the comparison of the teams on social media.
On Wednesday, notably after the new Cofidis case, the Briton said he understood questions on doping in cycling “from some parts of the media,” but insisted he got to where he is through hard work.
“I don’t feel like I have to sit here and justify to everyone ... To me, it’s them pissing all over everything I’ve done by just saying ‘he’s cheating’ or whatever and that’s what really gets to me,” he said.
Wiggins also echoed comments in the past by Armstrong, who repeatedly said he never failed a drugs test and that during his career he was the world’s most-tested athlete for doping.
“Tested by the UCI — god knows how many times a year, god knows how many times on this race, and on the Dauphine, blood tested every morning and all that,” Wiggins said, referring to international cycling’s governing body and the Criterium du Dauphine race. “What more can I do than that?”