In the final week of the 98th edition of the Tour de France, there is still no clear favourite in sight. The 3,430.5km race, spread over 21 stages, has so far thrown up a surprise leader in 32-year-old Frenchman Thomas Voeckler.
Last year’s winner and three-time champion, Spain’s Alberto Contador, lies in sixth place 3 minutes 42 seconds off the pace, while 2010’s runner-up, Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, is in fourth place. Other notable contenders on the leader board are Frank Schleck—Andy’s elder brother and the lesser regarded of the two—and former runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia, Ivan Basso of Italy and another Spaniard, Samuel Sanchez, who had a best finish of fourth overall in the 2010 edition of the race.
In the running: (from left) Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, race leader Thomas Voeckler of France and Alberto Contador of Spain. Denis Balibouse/Reuters
The race this year has 10 flat stages, three stages run on medium mountains, six high mountain stages, one individual time-trial stage and one team-trial stage. Not by coincidence, with the exception of Voeckler, the rest of the riders are all-rounders—meaning they aren’t just good at flat stages or at climbing but bring high levels of relative expertise in all types of stages, making them stronger contenders.
Voeckler, should he hold on to his slender lead, will become the first Frenchman in 14 years to even reach a podium, let alone win a race. Locals will be cheering fiercely for him as they hope he will become the first home rider in 26 years to win what is arguably France’s biggest annual sporting event.
But Voeckler himself is playing down his chances even as the famous maillot jaune, or the yellow jersey given to the overall leader of the race, rests heavily on his shoulders since he claimed the lead at the end of the ninth stage from Issoire to Saint-Flour.
“I have not the slightest chance,” Voeckler told reporters earlier in the week. “Zero per cent. But I will fight, for sure.”
The Frenchman has worn the yellow jersey briefly before, back in 2004 when seven-time champion Lance Armstrong won top honours. Admittedly, what goes against him is the fact that he is not a specialist climber. Tour winners have almost always excelled in climbing, especially on the steep French Alps, which effectively sifts the wheat from the chaff.
Voeckler will have to withstand attacks from the Schleck brothers, Evans, Basso and Contador-all highly rated climbers-on such dreaded climbs as Col du Galibier, Col d’lzoard 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. “I know what the Alps are like, and I’m expecting things to be difficult.”
To be sure, he still has a 1 minute, 45 second advantage over second-placed Evans. Still, he was expected to surrender the lead during the climbs of the Pyrenees range last week but held on-gaining respect from his rivals in the process.
“Voeckler is in incredible form,” Contador said. “He has a big lead, it will be hard to make that up.”
Contador himself sustained an injury in the first week of the Tour, picking up a troublesome right knee, forcing him to pedal harder with the left, which has ensured that he’s not higher up the leader board.
The Schleck brothers haven’t shown signs of all-out attack yet, and being part of the same team, will probably be wary of spoiling each other’s chances. Evans will have no such compulsions and is a noted time trailer, which could stand him in good stead come Saturday’s 42.5km individual time trial at Grenoble.
The eventual winner will possibly be known at the end of the three high mountain stages on the Alps on Friday. Whoever wins, this year’s Tour will go down as one of the most competitive races in recent history.