- The Washington Times - Monday, July 18, 2011

MONTPELLIER, FRANCE | With the Tour de France heading toward its decisive stages, there still is 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 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, 9 seconds ahead of Andy Schleck - the runner-up to Contador in the past 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 Voeckler, 32, 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 a layer of intrigue because it has been 14 years since a Frenchman even got on the podium - let alone won the race. Voeckler also has 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.