MONTPELLIER, France — Thomas Voeckler stayed with the big Tour de France favorites in the mountains.
He’s had the lead for six days. And no less a cycling connoisseur than Lance Armstrong thinks the Frenchman could be wearing the yellow jersey when the race ends July 24 in Paris.
The biggest doubter is Voeckler himself.
“I will fight, of course, but I musn’t be dishonest,” Voeckler said after Sunday’s flat Stage 15, won by British sprint star Mark Cavendish. “I consider that I have zero percent chance of winning the Tour de France.”
For many French fans, Voeckler has rekindled cautious optimism that cycling’s greatest prize could return home for the first time since 1985, the last of Bernard Hinault’s five victories.
Voeckler’s retort: Don’t expect me to do it.
“I don’t want to lie to the public,” he said. “Maybe it would make for good publicity, I don’t know, but it doesn’t interest me. … I’m not going to announce to the French people that ‘I’m in yellow, I have a chance to win.’”
Such humility has been virtually unheard of at cycling’s premier event in recent years. Riders like Armstrong or three-time champion Alberto Contador of Spain unabashedly bared their ambition from the outset.
“It’s not a question of wanting. Everybody would like to win the Tour,” Voeckler said. “It’s true that since Bernard Hinault, the French people want a winner. I really sense it well.”
Voeckler leads Frank Schleck of Luxembourg by 1 minute, 49 seconds, and Cadel Evans of Australia is third, 2:06 back. Schleck’s younger brother, Andy, is 2:15 behind in fourth and Ivan Basso of Italy is fifth — 3:16 behind off the pace. Contador is seventh, four minutes behind.
Voeckler doesn’t expect to hold off probable attackers in two punishing days in the Alps on Thursday and Friday, each featuring uphill finishes. Then, on Saturday, there’s a final individual time trial — a discipline in which he isn’t among the best — in and around Grenoble. The race ends next Sunday.
For the most part, the running commentary this year has been that Contador, two-time runners-up Evans and Andy Schleck, plus Basso have yet to go at each other. Voeckler, in a way, has been cast as just a bump in their road.
But after three days in the Pyrenees, the main contenders are taking the Frenchman seriously.
“Voeckler is in incredible form,” said Contador, who has increasingly used mind games since winning the Tour in 2007 and the last two years. “He has a big lead. It will be hard to make that up.”
Evans calls the overall standings “a bit strange.”
“I think people still look at the Schleck brothers as favorites, but they’re two minutes down. … So it’s still about Voeckler for now.”
Armstrong knows the French rider well: He wrested the yellow jersey from Voeckler after his 10-day run in it in the 2004 Tour. Armstrong tweeted that if Voeckler finished the stage with the favorites “then we have to say he can win the TdF.” He did.
Then the seven-time Tour champion went further.
“Final TT is 42km. He’s French. It’s the Tour de FRANCE,” Armstrong wrote, referring to the final time trial. “He won’t lose 2:06 in the final time trial ASSUMING… He keeps them close on Alpe d’Huez.”
Fellow French riders who’ve seen Voeckler up close more recently are cautious, with one floating the more reasonable chance that he could become the first top-three French finisher since Richard Virenque was second in 1997.
“I think he can limit the damage in the big Alpine stages, but the last time trial …” said Cofidis team rider Samuel Dumoulin. “A place in the top five is possible or even, in the right circumstances, a place on the podium.”
Voeckler and his squad want to just race and see how things turn out, possibly as a way to manage expectations and sidestep the question: Can he really win?
“I don’t answer this question, and I don’t ask it myself,” said Jean-Rene Bernardeau, manager of Voeckler’s Europcar squad. “Thomas will give everything he can in the next week.”
On Sunday, Voeckler and the contenders cruised across after Cavendish in the mostly flat, 120-mile route through vineyards from Limoux to Montpellier that favored sprinters
The British rider overcame high winds and “bashing” among riders in the pack for his fourth stage victory this year and the 19th of his career. He nosed ahead of American Tyler Farrar in second, and Alessandro Petacchi of Italy in third.
Cavendish is now three career stage wins behind Armstrong, who is fifth with 22. Belgium’s Eddy Merckx holds the record with 34.
As the stage began, five riders — all about two hours behind Voeckler — surged out of the pack at the mile mark, then built a lead of 4:15. But the pack, led by Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad team, barreled ahead late in the day and narrowed the gap on the breakaway. It was fully overtaken in the last two miles.
“Today was brutal,” said George Hincapie, an American teammate of Evans’ on the BMC team. “For a transition day it was harder than a lot of the mountain stages we did. It was full-on all day, fighting for position.”
He added: “You couldn’t let your guard down for one second.”
In 2009, the last time a Tour stage ended in Montpellier, Armstrong’s Astana squad won the team time trial. The Texan came within a split second of gaining the yellow jersey for one final time before he retired last year.
Monday is the second and final rest day before cyclists head into the foothills of the Alps for Stage 16 on Tuesday, a 101-mile ride from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap.