Pierre Rolland sensationally won stage 19 of the Tour de France at Alpe d'Huez to take the white jersey and move into the top ten in the GC. But it was a hard day for Thomas Voeckler who lost his yellow jersey after 10 fabulous days in the race lead - despite yet another brave effort.
What more can we write about this exceptional Europcar team on this thrilling Tour de France? Having held the leader's yellow jersey for 10 whole days, the team now has a stage win - and not any old stage win: the most famous of all stage wins. Pierre Rolland, for 10 days a constant rock beside Thomas Voeckler, came into his own on Friday to win atop Alpe d'Huez. Youngster Rolland is only the second French rider in history to achieve this monumental feat - and the last? Just one Bernard Hinault back in 1986...
Rolland's stunning win takes the edge off Voeckler's loss of the maillot jaune - and also ends France's long wait for a stage on this year's race. What's more, the 24-year-old did not rely on a fortunate breakaway to deliver the goods - Rolland attacked the race's very best climbers on one of cycling's most demanding of climbs, looked to have lost it, then fought back with sheer grit and determination on his way to securing the biggest win of his career.
At the foot of Alpe d'Huez and its legendary 21 hairpins, Rolland broke clear from the leading group of riders just as Voeckler and a large chasing group were returning into the action after the long descent of the Col du Galibier. Rolland soon dropped his fellow escapee, the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervelo), before himself being caught and passed by the three-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank), who followed up an attack on the Col du Telegraph with another early attack on Alpe d'Huez.
But Rolland refused to give up, stabilising his deficit to around 20 seconds while being joined by another Spaniard, the stage 12 winner Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel). Rolland used the wheel of the Olympic champion Sanchez to return to the wheel of Contador before launching his own counter attack with just three kilometres to the summit. Neither Spaniard could respond to Rolland's unexpected dig, and the rider from Orleans kissed his Europcar shirt as he rode over the line 15 seconds clear of Sanchez and 23 seconds ahead of Contador.
In his last two years as a professional, Rolland had won just one race on the Circuit de Lorraine. He now has the most famous Tour de France scalp to his name - at the tender age of 24. Having entered into Tour folklore, Rolland also rose to 10th place in the GC in what has proved to be a dazzling debut Tour. He is also the new white jersey and will enter Saturday's 42km individual time trial in Grenoble with a 1:33 advantage over the Estonian Rein Taaramae (Cofidis). Having served Voeckler faithfully and selflessly for three weeks, Rolland's win was as deserved as it was spectacular.
Voeckler rode a brilliant stage on Friday, never giving up even when the odds were stacked against him. The former national champion tried his best to keep up with both Contador and Andy Schleck when they broke clear on the first climb of the day, the Col du Telegraph. Voeckler managed to keep the deficit to 30 seconds before deciding to drop back to the main chasing group to rejoin his teammates. But on the ascent of the Col du Galibier, Voeckler could not find the legs to keep in touch, leaving Rolland to ride on with the other favourites.
Thanks to the enormous effort of Cyril Gautier, Perrig Quémeneur, Vincent Jérôme and Anthony Charteau, Voeckler managed to return to the main group of race favourites before the start of the final ascent up Alpe d'Huez. But the steep 21 bends were to prove too much for Thomas, who dropped off the back early on and spent the rest of the climb trying to limit his losses. Meanwhile, with the blessing of the team, Rolland continued his pursuit of Contador - before turning a sorry situation around and delivering an unexpected but beautiful win for Jean-René Bernaudeau's team.
"I said I wanted to do everything possible to defend the yellow jersey of Thomas but on the climb of the Galibier, he told me, 'Seize your chance, don't worry about me'," said Rolland, adding: "It will take me a little time before I realize what I've done."
Voeckler finished the stage 3:22 down on his teammate but is still in line for a top five finish in Paris. Thomas is currently 2:10 off the pace in fourth place, with his nearest rival being the Italian Damiano Cunego (Lampre) in firth, 3:31 down.
10 days in yellow, a stage win, Voeckler in the top five and Rolland in white and in the top ten - Bernaudeau promised fireworks before the start in the Vendé and the boys in green have certainly struck a match to the fuse.