The Tour de France has exited the Pyrenees, and in a surprising turn of events, the general classification favourites have been unable to wrest the yellow jersey from the shoulders of the courageous Frenchman Thomas Voeckler.
Even seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong took note of the performance, today indicating via Twitter that he thought Voeckler could win the Tour de France if he made it to the top of the Plateau de Beille with the leaders, which he did.
Armstrong himself had to go up against Voeckler's steely resolve in the 2004 Tour de France, and while he was able to finally unseat the Frenchman on the first day in the Alps.
"He wasn't 'swinging off the back' today," Armstrong said. "He was one of the strongest. The others weren't assertive and/or aggressive enough to make a selection," Armstrong said.
"He has 2:06 on Evans. Final TT is 42km. He's French. It's the Tour de France. He won't lose 2:06 in the final time trial assuming he keeps them close on Alpe d'Huez. His teammate Pierre Rolland has been a rock star and has to continue to be. Lastly, the dude knows how to suffer. Will be fun to watch."
We could see Voeckler in the race lead through stage 17, but a look at what the riders' future holds casts a reasonable shadow of doubt over Armstrong's predictions.
The Europcar captain holds a 1:49 lead on Fränk Schleck (Leopard Trek), while perennial Tour contender Cadel Evans (BMC) is third at 2:06. Last year's runner-up Andy Schleck is at 2:15, while defending champion Alberto Contador is a full four minutes behind Voeckler.
There are still three stages where the contenders can reasonable pull back those minutes on Voeckler and easily distance each other with a particularly good day.
The relatively flat transitional stage on Sunday to Montpellier and the first Alpine stage to Gap following Monday's second rest day may not present enough difficulty to dislodge Voeckler. Tuesday's stage has only the category 2 Col de Manse, which comes just outside the final 10km.
Stage 17 on Wednesday holds the climb to the 2035m high summit at Sestrieres, which comes with a full 62km left in the stage and only the category 2 Cote de Pramartino blocking the drop to the finish in Pinerolo. Although it is classified at second category, the Pra Martino is steep, and the 7km climb could easily be a springboard to gain two minutes on one's competitors if a rider is particularly good at descending, like Samuel Sanchez.
The 18th stage which ends on the Col du Galibier could finally prove to be Voeckler's undoing and could easily see one of our favourites lose the Tour. The final 40km of the stage are nearly entirely uphill, with the Col du Lautaret at 8km remaining and no rest before the finish at Galibier Serre Chevalier on a massive 200km stage.
One can never discount the importance of the final mountain stage ending on the Alpe d'Huez: in 2008 it was Carlos Sastre who was brave enough to attack and gain a winning margin. Voeckler is unlikely to survive the all-out blood bath that will take place if the favourites are still close to each other here.
With the penultimate day's 41km time trial in Grenoble, the Schleck brothers will need not seconds but minutes on the likes of Evans, who already showed on this same course in the Critérium du Dauphiné that he can perform on the undulating course. He'll have a big advantage having chosen to test himself here in June, as the Schlecks, Contador and Ivan Basso did not.
Last month Evans put 1:58 into Voeckler in Grenoble. However, the yellow jersey holds special powers, and if the Frenchman is still in the race lead, he will be motivated to resist losing that much again.
The Schleck brothers' time trial performances in the Tour de Suisse were less than stellar, and neither one has shown prowess in the discipline. However, Contador has won three time trials so far this season, and has even bested world champion Fabian Cancellara in a similar test in Annecy in the 2009 Tour.
Long story short; there is still plenty of exciting racing to come.
|2||Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||0:01:49|
|3||Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||0:02:06|
|4||Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||0:02:15|
|5||Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||0:03:16|
|6||Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||0:03:44|
|7||Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||0:04:00|
|8||Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre - ISD||0:04:01|
|9||Thomas Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||0:05:46|
|15||Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) Team RadioShack||0:09:50|
|16||Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Highroad||0:10:01|
|18||Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale||0:10:56|
|25||Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team RadioShack||0:16:48|
|42||Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team||0:35:21|
|51||David Arroyo Duran (Spa) Movistar Team||0:43:03|