Thomas Voeckler's stubborn defence of the Tour's overall lead continued apace yesterday as the Frenchman managed to fend off the pre-race favourites' attacks and remains, against all expectations, in yellow as the race leaves the Pyrenees. Voeckler had believed he would lose the lead as soon as the race hit the mountains. But that has been far from the case and the Europcar pro looked more than comfortable on yesterday's final ascent at Plateau de Beille and resisted all the attacks without too much difficulty.
The Frenchman crossed the line on Plateau de Beille's in seventh place in a group of half a dozen favourites, confirming that his strong ride on the ascent to Luz Ardiden two days earlier was far from being a fluke. The icing on the cake of such a splendid performance would have been the stage win – that went to Belgium's Jelle Vanendert – but Voeckler has his eye on the bigger picture. Only Andy Schleck, twice the Tour's runner-up, managed to take two seconds off Voeckler with a late, insignificant move.
Despite the French TV commentator's increasingly shrill demands that Voeckler attack on the 17 kilometre monster climb of Plateau de Beille, merely for Voeckler to fail to be dropped by all the pre-race favourites was a major achievement – to the point where the Europcar rider can now be considered a contender for the podium in Paris. What the French are secretly hoping for, of course, is the overall win, which has remained out of their clutches since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Richard Virenque came the closest with a couple of podium finishesin the mid-1990s, but the most recent best was fourth for Christophe Moreau in 2000. Now, though, the French are looking even higher.
When asked if Voeckler could win, the top contenders refused to rule him out after such a huge improvement in his climbing ability. "Why not?" said Schleck. "The Alps are harder, but Thomas has shown today."
Formerly known as an all-rounder, Voeckler has improved enormously since he first burst on to the scene in 2004 when he unexpectedly took the Tour lead. That year, Voeckler defended the yellow jersey on the very same climb of Plateau de Beille against Lance Armstrong. However the inroads the Armstrong made that day made it obvious that Voeckler was really keeping the jersey warm for the American.
This time round, Voeckler still has a solid 1min 49sec advantage over Frank Schleck, and equally importantly, an increasingly confident all-French Europcar team to support him. "I'm far stronger than I was seven years ago," Voeckler said. "Much more confident, much more sure that I can really get something longlasting out of this Tour. In 2004 I wouldn't have been able to follow Armstrong and Basso but now I could have."
Giving his and France's strong anti-doping stance in general, the question was inevitably raised as to whether the goalposts have now shifted so far in favour of clean cycling that riders like Voeckler and his team can shine more. "I've learned over the last few years that the important thing is to look at myself, not at the rest," Voeckler said cautiously.
"But yes, you can say that the sport is improving in general, too. People are realising what has to be done."
Probably the most disappointing performance yesterday was by Alberto Contador, who won on Plateau de Beille in 2007 en route to the first of his three Tours. Four years on, like the rest of the big favourites, he was content merely to follow the moves, with Basso and Australian Cadel Evans making most of the running on the last climb.
None of the usual fireworks from Contador, or the other big contenders for that matter, made for a dull end to a spectacular three days racing in the Pyrenees, but his team manager, the 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis, claimed to be satisfied. Riis pointed to Contador's knee injury from stage eight as the main culprit for his lacklustre performance, saying "he didn't attack, but neither did anybody else.
"He didn't lose time and he's slowlygetting back into his top condition. As we always said would happen, it's going to be the Alps which decide."
Today sees the pack meander to Montpellier, where Mark Cavendish could win his fourth stage of the Tour and take a stronger hold on the green jersey he wears at present.
What yesterday's stage meant
Thomas Voeckler is a solid leader – against all expectations – and could yet make it to the top three in Paris. France is holding its breath. The triple defending champion, Alberto Contador continues to be on the back foot, but is not totally out of the game. However, he's looking increasingly irrelevant. The other favourites, Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck and Cadel Evans, are yet to show their hand. The waiting game favours Evans, an excellent time triallist, the most. Mark Cavendish has an excellent chance of becoming Britain's first ever winner of the points competition.