The Cruelty of Expectations

Covering the financial industry as a journalist taught me how expectations can change a story. Company A says profit doubled: that’s good news by itself but the forecast was for a fivefold gain, so the results are disappointing. Company B says sales fell 20 percent, signaling problems. Because revenue was predicted to drop 59 percent, its investors might still be pleased. The same goes in sports, and last week at the Tour de France, French cyclist Thomas Voeckler fell victim to rollercoaster expectations: his own and those of an entire nation.

Voeckler unexpectedly took the lead of the Tour on July 10, with 12 stages remaining. The 32-year-old rider, who finished 76 out of 170 in 2010, wasn’t among the favorites: a French TV commentator described him as “not the most talented rider of the peloton, but a fighter who never gives up.” The French public, starved of victory since Bernard Hinault won the Tour in 1985, embraced Voeckler as a national hero.
The race leader’s yellow jersey, or “maillot jaune,” for Voeckler wasn’t a total surprise for those who follow the Tour — which is about all French older than one year. The hard-working rider became the public’s darling in 2004 by staying 10 days in yellow, before Lance Armstrong crushed a nation’s dream and won his first of seven Tours.
Meanwhile France was still waiting for its next Bernard Hinault, a fixture of the Tour who gives away the winning jerseys at the end of every stage during the podium ceremony: yellow for the overall leader, green for the best sprinter, white for the best rider under 25 years old and, my favorite, polka-dot for the “king of the mountain.” Once in a while a young rider is heralded as the new Hinault and his career is promptly torpedoed, crushed by pressure and unrealistic expectations. (The same goes in tennis: the last French winner of Roland Garros, the French Open, was Yannick Noah in 1985.)

 (Voecler in yellow surrounded by his team mates in the Pyrenées. Photo by Mathias-S.)

Voeckler was realistic about his chances to stay in yellow on July 10, candidly setting the expectations low. He said in interviews after the stage that he would fight as hard as he could to keep the lead but didn’t expect to survive the Pyrenées mountains.

Voeckler is a “puncher-barouder,” the type of riders who break away abruptly from the peloton and ride alone or in small groups for hours to try to win a stage. They fight against a peloton of about 180 riders organized in teams who take turns drafting each other to catch up. But to win the 3,430-kilometer (2,130 miles), three-week Tour across France, you need more than kamikaze breakaways: you need to be good at climbing mountains and at time trials too — not Voeckler’s forte. You also need strong teammates who can protect you, bring you bottles of water and help you up the climbs; Voeckler’s team was considered weak.

Everyday Voeckler stayed in yellow that week was as sweet as it was unforeseeable. In France, we say that the “maillot jaune” can give you wings, and that’s what happened to Voeckler in the Pyrenées. There he was, “our” Voeckler, keeping up with the leaders in the mountains with panache. In his characteristic style, bouncing around out of the saddle, he looked comfortable amid Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador, the three Tour favorites. He fought like a lion and couldn’t believe he was able to follow the “cadors.” French commentators started saying that Voeckler may have underestimated himself and should revise up his ambitions. After the Pyrenées, France started to dream in yellow: can Voeckler win the Tour?

“Everybody’s talking about it,” Voeckler said in an interview with a French newspaper on July 19, the day before the two most difficult stages in the Alps. “It’s premature. But I start wondering whether I’m right to give myself zero chance to win, or whether you do well to think I may win. Since my last yellow jersey in 2004, I know how it works and I know the French like to think that a French can win.”
The seeds of high expectation were planted, even though Voeckler, in the same interview, repeated that he wasn’t going to win.

(See video of Voeckler keeping up with the cadors in the Pyrenées here.)

Like a French movie, the story doesn’t end well. In the first Alpine stage, Voeckler took risks on a descent and veered off onto the concrete courtyard of a house, losing time. Two days later, after starting the stage with a lead of 15 seconds, Voeckler made what a teammate called a “small error” by trying to follow two favorites in the lower portion of the Galibier pass. He should have waited for the third one, Cadel Evans — the eventual Tour winner. It’s the kind of mistake Voeckler wouldn’t have made without the yellow jersey on his shoulders.
“We knew Thomas had very little chance to win. He lost more time than we had estimated,” because of the tactical error, Anthony Charteau, the teammate, wrote in Le Figaro. “There was so much pressure on him.”
Voeckler lost the lead later that day at the Alpe d’Huez, a legendary climb on the Tour. He was fuming when he crossed the finish, accusing a TV motorcycle of staying too close in front of Contador and allowing him to draft during the ascent of the Galibier. Voeckler’s anger was a sign he had begun to believe he could win, in spite of himself. We made him believe it, and now he was crushed. After the following day’s stage, the man who was France’s hero for 10 days was seen riding his bike alone to his team’s hotel. He finished fourth overall.

(View from the Col du Galibier.)

France has already turned its sights to its next big hope: Pierre Rolland, a 24-year-old team mate of Voeckler. Rolland helped his team leader for 10 days, then won the Alpe d’Huez stage after receiving Voeckler’s permission to leave his side. He was the first French winner of the coveted stage since…Bernard Hinault. Can Rolland, who won the white jersey for the best young rider this year, be a future Tour winner? That will be France’s question, and the cycle of hope — and the hope of its cycling — will continue.

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