No Clear Tour de France Champion Favorite Before Race Reaches Alps

News & Results

07/18/2011| 0 comments
by AP and Roadcycling.com
Photo Fotoreporter Sirotti.
Photo Fotoreporter Sirotti.

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.

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.

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 de France 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 de France 2011.

"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 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 and continued "He has a big lead, it will be hard to make that up."

None of the Tour de France GC 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

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