By Jamey Keaten
Christophe Moreau of Ag2r had made the French believe that they might get a new home-grown winner at the Tour de France. But that hope was dealt a serious setback in Thursday's 11th stage, when Moreau was dropped behind by a pack that was speeding away under the guidance of Alexander Vinokourov's Astana team. The Kazakh got some of his morale back that was shattered following his accident on stage 5 and the unexpected time losses in the Alps. Vinokourov revealed that he came close to abandoning Wednesday and had the osteopath work on his damaged knees until midnight.
Overall leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark kept up with the front runners and he eliminated one overall contender out of the top ten. "I think he definitely lost his chance of winning the Tour today," Rasmussen said of Moreau, almost gleeful over having one less challenger.
Moreau and his Ag2r team were the day's biggest loser. They had successfully been chasing bad luck all day, with two flat tyres and the abandoning of Sylvain Calzati. Then Moreau crashed in Thursday's hot, wind-swept ride along the Mediterranean from Marseille to Montpellier, shredding his blue, white and red national champion's uniform over his left thigh as if he had been attacked by a large dog.
After his mishap Thursday, Moreau got back on his bike, and while getting a new set of cleats and some medical attention, Vinokourov's Astana team cranked up the peloton's pace, leaving the French veteran in the dust.
Moreau has given the French hope before. He finished in the top 12 in each of the last three Tours. For two days in 2001, he donned yellow after winning the prologue time-trial. Even at 36, the Ag2r team leader had shown his best form in years heading into this Tour: He won the Dauphiné Libéré stage race in June, and won France's road championship after a long solo break a week before the year's biggest event.
With seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong retired in 2005, Moreau had been among those looking to fill the void. A string of doping scandals over the last year thinned the field of contenders and improved his chances. In his role as perennial French hope, Moreau had said he wasn't going to give himself any undue pressure to win this year.
On Thursday, he tried to make the best of losing ground to Rasmussen. "It's not over. I was hurting in my hip, my morale took a blow," Moreau said. "But three minutes, it's limited. ... I'm going to try to put myself together before the big mountain stages."
Challengers like Moreau are looking to Saturday's time-trial in Albi for a chance to make up ground against Rasmussen, who admits he is a pure climber and doesn't fare well in races against the clock.
Five-time champion Bernard Hinault was the last Frenchman to win the Tour, in 1985. Four years later, Laurent Fignon placed second to Greg LeMond by a record-low eight seconds. The last French podium finish was Richard Virenque's second in 1997. Hinault commented that Ag2r was partially to blame for not organising the chase quickly enough.
One former French star said Moreau is not likely to be on the podium after Thursday's drab performance. "For winning the Tour, his chances are nil," said Bernard Thévenet, who won in 1975 and 1977. "All that we want is a French winner ... it's not for this year. We'll wait some more."