Montpellier, France: With the Tour de France heading toward its decisive stages, there is still no favorite in a wide open race that is fueling the passions of French fans who hope Thomas Voeckler holds his lead against all odds.
When racing resumes Tuesday after a rest day, Voeckler will open the 16th stage nearly two minutes ahead of Frank Schleck — supposedly a weaker rider than his younger brother, Andy — and four minutes ahead of three-time champion Alberto Contador.
Voeckler remains fiercely adamant he has a "zero percent chance" to become the first French Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, while doubts persist about Contador`s troublesome right knee. Even the Schleck brothers seem undecided who is No. 1 on their team, while two-time runner-up Cadel Evans is conspicuously staying out of the limelight.
All of this means that it was increasingly hard to pick a favorite heading into the last week of the Tour.
"It`s still a bit strange because I think people still look at the Schleck brothers as favorites, but they`re two minutes down," Evans said on Sunday after British sprinter Mark Cavendish won the 15th stage. "So it`s still about Voeckler for now. We`ve got some more hills, some more racing and a time trial to go."
Evans is third overall, 2:06 behind Voeckler, 17 seconds behind second-place Frank Schleck, nine seconds ahead of Andy Schleck — the runner-up to Contador in the last two Tours — and 1:54 ahead of Contador.
"Voeckler is in incredible form," Contador said. "He has a big lead; it will be hard to make that up."
None of the Tour contenders managed to cut loose in the three Pyrenean mountain stages last week, and someone has to make a big move in three punishing Alpine stages that loom.
"I don`t want to arrive in Paris with regrets," Contador said after Cavendish raced to his fourth stage victory of the race — and 19th overall in the Tour — by beating American sprinter Tyler Farrar on a 119.6-mile stage from Limoux to Montpellier.
There should be plenty of opportunities for Contador to attack the 32-year-old Voeckler in the punishing Alps later this week. But if the Frenchman does not crack, then the race is going to be decided on the penultimate stage time trial.
Not that cycling fans are complaining.
Voeckler`s unexpected rise to the top adds an extra layer of intrigue because it has been 14 years since a Frenchman even got on the podium — let alone won the race. Voeckler has also become an extra, surprise, and welcome contender.
Last year`s Tour was a duel between Contador and Schleck, the year before it was Contador beating Schleck again, with seven-time champion Lance Armstrong completing the podium. No great surprises there, even with Armstrong`s hyped return.
This year, there are six possible contenders, with Italian rider Ivan Basso — third overall in 2004 and second in 2005 behind Armstrong — sitting 44 seconds ahead of Contador.
On Tuesday, the riders will head toward the Alps on a medium mountain stage before the first of three high mountain stages. Basso is an excellent climber, although he might not have the teammates to help him keep going.
Once Voeckler hits the Alps, he has to withstand Contador, Evans, Basso and the Schlecks on such feared climbs as Col du Galibier, Col d`Izoard and L`Alpe d`Huez — all of them known as HC climbs, or Hors Categorie, because they are too demanding to have a classification.
"I don`t think I have their level in the high mountains," Voeckler said with a hint of resignation when comparing himself to his rivals. "I know what the Alps are like and I`m expecting things to be very difficult."
Voeckler is increasingly popular among French fans, but he does not think things will change for him in the peloton.
"You don`t get a helping hand in the mountains, you can either follow or you can`t," he said. "I`m not expecting any help other than from my teammates."
He has worn the yellow jersey before, in 2004 when Armstrong won the race for the sixth consecutive time, but adulation and expectation do not sit easily with the French star.
"Maybe it would make for good publicity, I don`t know, but it doesn`t interest me," Voeckler said. "I`m not going to announce to the French that `I`m in yellow, I have a chance to win.`"
Neither does the prospect of becoming the first Frenchman to win the showcase race since five-time champion Hinault.
French fans still line the roadsides and pack the mountain passes, but they rarely get the chance to cheer on any French success. You have to go back to the pre-Armstrong era to find a podium with a Frenchman standing on it.
Richard Virenque, a formidable climber, finished second to Jan Ullrich in 1997, and third the year before.
"French people have been waiting for a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault, and waiting for a Frenchman on the podium since Virenque," Voeckler said after retaining the yellow jersey on Sunday.
French hearts are clearly beating for Voeckler, but he doesn`t want to raise the intensity level any higher.
"I consider myself to have a zero percent chance of winning the Tour de France," he said.
By the time the race hits the high Alps on Wednesday in the 17th stage from Gap to Pinerolo, Contador hopes to have finally shaken off the lingering pain in his right knee sustained from crashes in the fifth and ninth stages.
"My legs felt good today, you have to make the most of every second to recover and to think of the Alps," Contador said Sunday. "I will wait; I hope my legs respond in the Alps."