No Clear Tour de France Champion Favorite Before Race Reaches Alps
With the 2011 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.
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 former 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 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 and added "I will wait, I hope my legs respond in the Alps."
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