Tour de France: So, what have we learnt so far and what will happen between now and Paris?

It's been a race of crashes, casualties, Cavendish and a surprise French leader. Alasdair Fotheringham makes sense of it all

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The Independent Online

1 Team Sky Even without Bradley Wiggins, Sky have proved categorically this season that they are a force to be reckoned with in the Tour de France. A stage win in Lisieux for Edvald Boasson Hagen, a superb breakaway for Geraint Thomas on the Luz Ardiden stage, and some strong attacking moves by Xavier Zandio, Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha – who battled on despite an awful crash on stage eight. On top of that, Rigobert Uran now leads the Best Young Rider competition and could well take it to Paris. We'll never know what they could have achieved with Wiggins, but their collective performance bodes very well for the years to come.

2 Crashes In terms of abandons maybe this hasn't been the worst Tour, but the crashes this year have drastically affected the overall shape of the race – far more so than usual.

The most serious in terms of rider safety was unquestionably when Juan Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland were shunted off the road by a France Television car, in Hoogerland's case on to a barbed-wire fence.

Thankfully, vehicle-bike collisions are very rare in the big Tours, but major questions are still being asked about rider safety. The French police are currently investigating this case, so we might get some answers from them.

Beyond that, Wiggins, Robert Gesink, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Kloden and Jurgen Van Den Broeck were all among the overall contenders when they left the Tour early because of crashes. None was among the top favourites – Contador being the only one of those affected – but given what the outsider Thomas Voeckler has achieved, it could have been their year too.

3 Mark Cavendish The Manxman's chances of taking green to Paris are the best he's ever had. He is clearly on form, while his team's general classification options have now disappeared so they will be channelling all their energy into defending his points lead. And the Manx Missile is pointing straight towards a third successive victory on the Champs-Elysées, breaking last year's record of back-to-back wins.

4 Thomas Voeckler He took over the race lead as a fill-in before the main contenders showed their hand in the Pyrenees, and now post-Pyrenees the Frenchman is proving far trickier to dislodge than they could possibly have imagined.

Significantly, seven-times winner Lance Armstrong has added his voice to those who think Voeckler could win it – and with a two-minute "cushion" over closest rival Frank Schleck, France's new sports hero will be sleeping soundly at least until the Alps kick in on Wednesday. Moreover, Voeckler might even end up in yellow in Paris – a huge, huge surprise.

5 Alberto Contador and the other favourites Down – four minutes down, to be exact, on Voeckler – but by no means out. Saturday's performance in the Pyrenees by the defending champion showed a slow improvement on Thursday's weak ride, but he's still not back at his top level. The Alps, though, could provide a different story.

As for the rest, on paper the former double runner-up Cadel Evans is the top favourite to win the Tour: he has the final time trial in his favour and has been the most consistent contender in the mountains

6 And what will happen next? After today's rest day, two days of skirmishing follow through the southern Alpine foothills, and then the mountain fun really starts.

Thursday sees the Tour finish at the summit of the legendary Galibier climb for the first time in its history, and Friday is a traditional but equally important showdown on the Alpe D'Huez.

Finally, Saturday's longish, fairly hilly time trial at Grenoble will confirm the winner.