One can scarcely imagine how the legs of Pierre Rolland must be feeling tonight. As he rests up with his Europcar team at the Ibis in Briancon, he must surely be able to take immense satisfaction from his Tour ride so far, despite his pain and suffering. He has been Thomas Voeckler’s teammate of last resort in the mountains, chasing down attacks and pacing Voeckler in defence of the maillot jaune. While Voeckler has been an inspiration, Rolland has been right there with him – finishing 6th of the Galibier today, adding to his 10th on Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille (and putting him now 12th overall and 2nd in the white jersey competition).
One can imagine that 24-year-old Rolland had ambitions of his own for the Tour, perhaps a stage win in the mountains, but surely he never thought that he would be helping to defend the race leader on the tough climbs, day after day after day. He clearly is a fine grimpeur, which your author was able to mention some years back after he won the mountains jersey at the Dauphiné Libéré in 2008. Since then, he performances have been relatively quiet. Until now.
Today’s epic stage will no doubt occupy many pages of editorial and, depending on the outcome at Alpe d’Huez, may well prove to be the defining one of this year’s Tour. Andy Schleck answered his critics, Cadel Evans rode like a man possessed, Contador cracked, and Voeckler held on to yellow for yet another day. But spare a thought for young Pierre Rolland from Orléans, having ridden himself inside out already but tonight having to face the prospect of just one more brutally hard day. Can he propel his whippet-like 6-foot 151-pound frame (no doubt a little lighter after nearly three weeks of the Tour) over the tough cols again? One suspects that he will do everything to ensure that he does. Rolland may not be under the same scrutiny and pressure as Voeckler, nor living in the limelight, but his contribution has been pivotal to animating this race and perhaps even giving France its first podium result in years. Surely Rolland is now a strong contender for climber of the year.
Update: After his exceptional win on Alpe d’Huez, the first French winner on the climb since Bernard Hinault in 1986, the question mark in the title has appropriately been removed.