France's new obsession

France is daring to dream that a Frenchman could be wearing the yellow jersey when the Tour de France reaches Paris next weekend - but Thomas Voeckler has to survive the Alps yet.

    DSK is old news. France has a new obsession: Voeckler-mania.

    Frenchman Thomas Voeckler is wearing the Tour de France leader's yellow jersey just a few days from the finish line in Paris. And the French are dreaming that maybe - just maybe - he could win the whole thing on Sunday July 24.

    He'd be the first French champion for 26 years and, in this cycling-mad country, that's a big deal. Think tens of thousands under the Arc de Triomphe. Think a Legion d'Honneur medal at the Elysée Palace.

    Voeckler, or Monsieur Panache, as he's known, may have all this ahead of him. But two gruelling Alpine Stages and a punishing time trial stand between him and victory on the Champs Elysées.

    Does he really stand a chance of winning it? Probably not. 

    So why do the French care so much? Because it's good to dream, and Voeckler is what they love.

    He's a modestly talented underdog who succeeds through sheer force of character and hard work. Since the rise of Lance Armstrong in 1999, the French have felt the world was trying to wrestle the Tour away from them. Armstrong was brash, American, and didn't care much for the traditions of the race.

    But he won. Every year, for seven straight years.

    Voeckler takes the French back to the good old days. He comes from a modest cycling club in the Vendée region in Western France, that promotes team work above winning at all costs.

    The French don't overly care for winners, after all.  Their two most popular cyclists are not Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil, with 10 Tour victories between them. They are Raymond Poulidor and Laurent Fignon, famous for their defeats.

    Poulidor is so appreciated for always coming second that the French have a term for that state of being: le Poulidorisme. And if you've never watched Laurent Fignon, ponytail flowing, snatch an 8-second defeat from the jaws of victory, I suggest you click here.

    Now, France may have humble ideas of itself, but the Tour has hardly leapt back to an age of innocence with Voeckler's success. People are beginning to take advantage. His team's main sponsor, a car rental firm, is plainly delighted. And French presidential candidate Francois Hollande was to be found jumping into camera shot with Voeckler at any given opportunity on July 16. Nicolas Sarkozy, a huge cycling fan, may follow suit before the Tour is up.

    Unfortunately for the yellow jersey, the reality check is all too present. Two fearsome mountaintop finishes, and the burden of a nation's expectation may well do for him.

    In the meantime, Vive Voeckler!


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