At the Tour, the French Kiss of Death

Overall leader Thomas Voeckler of France rides in the pack during the 15th stage of the Tour de France. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Bernard Hinault stood atop the podium on the Champs-Elysees on July 21, 1985, and he shook the trophy and the bouquet of flowers at the fans as only a native champion of the Tour de France is allowed. The Badger (Le blaireau, and, boy, was he ever), had just won his fifth Tour and although Hinault was clearly a superlative rider, there was nothing extraordinary about a Frenchman ruling Paris in late July.

Except, well, it hasn’t happened since.

The French have been patient – sort of – in the 26-year interim, even while enduring the seemingly interminable dominations of Miguel Indurain, the stolid Spanish grinder who was more bear than badger, and, of course, the reign of Lance Armstrong, who liberated the trophy  seven straight times, which the locals thought was a bit much.

French riders have been on the defensive, or so it seems, since the 1998 Festina scandal, when the top national team and its top rider, Richard Virenque, were nabbed with all sorts of steroids and blood-boosting goodies. The French anti-doping authorities went into overdrive then, and apparently have done a much better job than the international governing body of catching the cheaters. The Italians, Spanish, Germans, and, yes, the Americans, kept flying past the French on the mountains and, well, what did you expect, that the French would blame themselves?

Whatever the truth, the Tour de France has indeed not been won by a Frenchman since Hinault. And it has been since 1997 (quel coincidence!) that a French rider has even taken a step on the podium (yes, Virenque). But perhaps that is about to change.

The 2011 Tour has only another week to go and a Frenchman is wearing the yellow jersey of the race leader. Thomas Voeckler, from the region of Alsace, near the German border, kept the lead in the Pyrenees during difficult mountain stages, and now he has to do the same in the Alps.

Can he do it, and become the first French rider to win the Tour since Hinault? All of France hopes so. Voeckler isn’t so sure.

“I will fight, of course, but I must not be dishonest," Voeckler said. "I consider that I have zero percent chance of winning the Tour de France. I don’t want to lie to the public. 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.'"

Well, it’s not exactly a speech of defiance, but Voeckler is under-selling his chances, even if just a little. Maybe he doesn’t want to let down his countrymen who have been disappointed so often. Whatever, the guy does have a chance.

Voeckler was scheduled to fall out of the lead on Saturday when the Tour finished in the Pyrenees atop the monstrous Plateau de Beille. Instead, he hung around, stayed with the leading group and holds a nearly two-minute advantage over the next top contender for the overall title.

The question is whether Voeckler has gotten great or whether the top contenders are not-so-great this season. With cycling, there is always the question of whether a dope-free peleton is slower and more bunched up. And, as always, there are no answers.

In any case, Voeckler has time on the Schleck brothers from Leopard-Trek, Cadel Evans from BMC, Ivan Basso from Liquigas and defending champion Alberto Contador from Saxo Bank. Not a lot of time, but if he stays with them in the two hard days of the Alps that are coming Thursday and Friday, and rides a reasonable time trial on Saturday, he could be the next Frenchman on the top step. And Hinault will be there to shake his hand.

Will it happen? I wouldn’t bet that way, but it will be interesting to find out.

Voeckler, 32, had the yellow for nine stages as a young rider in 2004 – mostly as a gift from Armstrong, while it suited his purposes – and he finished 18th that year. Since then, his finishes have been: 124th, 89th, 66th, 97th, 67th, 76th. He’s a nice rider, but something always goes wrong. And as the  Tour climbs the Alps, with stages that end atop the Galibier on Thursday and atop L’Alpe d’Huez on Friday, there is a lot that can go wrong.

Still, the French guy is in the lead and there is no one in the field who is all that scary. The country waits and it wonders.

The final result could be decided, not by the Alps, but by the Grenoble time trial on Saturday. Evans is good at that event, as are Contador and Basso. Andy Schleck is just all right. Voeckler is average. Frank Schleck is awful. Based on the form we’ve seen so far and current time gaps, Evans, the 34-year-old Australian, is probably the favorite right now.

Evans was a great shape for a win in 2010 until he broke his elbow in a crash midway through the Tour, and this could be his last decent shot. He’s got a good team, run by veteran American director Jim Ochowicz, and some real teammate help getting up the mountains, including former Armstrong lieutenant, George Hincapie. The BMC team doesn’t really have a sprinter to rider for, so there’s just one mission. That’s getting the overall win for Evans.

He’s a bit of a bizarre character, though, and the pressure has gotten to him before. Previously when he’s been in yellow, he took to carrying around the large stuffed lion presented each day to the leader by Credit Lyonnais, the sponsor of the yellow jersey. That was odd. On another occasion, he wanted to take his little lap dog into the doping control compound. People wondered about that, too.

Still, Evans was second step on the podium two straight years (2007, 2008) and would have been up there somewhere last year but for the broken elbow. Sitting third right now, just 17 seconds behind a bad time-trial rider (F. Schleck) and 2:06 behind a French guy who doesn’t think he can win, Evans is a decent bet.

For his part, Voeckler will bide his time through the transition stages until Thursday, then he will try again to stay with the attackers and the climbers in the Alps. He has already hung around longer than expected, and perhaps he has figured something out. Maybe he can surprise even himself.

It has been a long time since Hinault, after all. Voeckler feels that every day. But only for a few more days.