by Justin Davis
MONTPELLIER, France, July 17, 2011 (AFP) – Tour de France leader Thomas Voeckler continued to keep the hosts dreaming of a shock home triumph but said Sunday he has “zero chance” of ending their 26-year wait for the yellow jersey.
Europcar team leader Voeckler emerged from three tough days in the Pyrenees mountains on Saturday with his 1min 49sec lead on Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck intact.
A handful of other, more fancied challengers are in Schleck’s wake including Australian Cadel Evans (2:06), younger brother Andy (2:15) and Spain’s reigning three-time champion Alberto Contador (4:00).
Three days in the Alps, starting Wednesday, and the penultimate stage time trial on Saturday are set to decide the race.
Voeckler, who famously spent 10 days in the lead in 2004 when he kept the yellow jersey, albeit temporarily, from Lance Armstrong, has won plenty of plaudits in recent days.
Even Armstrong posted a Twittter message on Saturday which talked up the Frenchman’s chances.
But after Sunday’s 15th stage, won by sprinter Mark Cavendish, Voeckler brushed off suggestions he could become the first home winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
“There’s a week of racing left and the Tour has been designed so that the race is decided in the final week,” said Voeckler.
“I’ll give it everything, but I’m not going to lie and say I can win it. I really believe I have zero chance of winning the Tour de France.
“It’s not a question of not wanting to. Everybody would like to win the Tour. Since Bernard Hinault we’re waiting for a (French) winner and since Richard Virenque a podium finisher.
“It would be a great publicity stunt but I’m not going to go out and lie and say I’m the man to succeed them.”
Voeckler’s biggest achievement in the race so far was defending his lead on stage 14 to Plateau de Beille, where the Schleck brothers took turns at testing their rivals with flurries of accelerations.
The Frenchman was able to counter every time, but hinted that wearing the yellow jersey, which in the past has propelled unlikely champions to unexpected feats, has given him wings.
“I was able to follow (the favourites) yesterday and for sure I’d love to be able to follow them in the coming stages, but I really don’t think I have what it takes to compete with them in the high mountains,” he added.
“For me, it’s almost freakish that I was able to follow them.”
With Contador, the Schlecks and Evans expected to resume their yellow jersey battle in the Alps, Voeckler doesn’t expect to benefit from ad hoc alliances.
He is simply counting on his team — and his legs — to do the talking.
“It’s not like on the flat (stages) when you can get a bit of help (from other teams). In the mountains, that just doesn’t exist. Your legs can either follow or they can’t,” he added,
“The fact you’re keeping up with the best climbers on the Tour gives you a lot of motivation. But I know the Alps are coming up, and I’m expecting some difficult moments.”