With just six stages left in the 2011 Tour de France, we are faced with the remarkable situation that we still have six serious contenders left, none of whom have yet fired a shot in anger.
We have a talented bunch still left at the top of the heap—Andy and Frank Schleck, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Ivan Basso and surprisingly, Thomas Voeckler.
After two punishing days in the Pyrenees—split by one comparatively relaxed day—we still know little of who is going to take this race by the horns and give it a really good shake.
Despite the leaders driving the peloton at a cracking pace—a pace that was sufficient to leave 90 percent of the riders behind—they steadfastly refused to have a serious attempt at destroying their direct competition.
Frank Schleck managed to pick up 20 seconds on the climb into Luz Ardiden, when he made a run with about two kilometres to ride. Strangely, none of the others felt the need to counter the move, instead choosing to shadow brother Andy Schleck.
Andy, on the other hand, simply tried a few feints, but failed to continue with any of them. It was a tactic that he tried unsuccessfully on Contador in the 2010 Tour, and he seems to have learned little from that experience.
There is a theory that Andy’s little bursts are designed to take the edge off Evans and Co., paving the way for brother Frank—who is believed to be in better form—to make the decisive break.
Evans has looked rock solid throughout the Tour. He has responded to every break and even tried an attack of his own on the ride to Plateau de Beille, but he is hamstrung by a weaker team in the mountains.
He also lacks that burst of speed on the break that could see him move away from the other riders, and instead needs to rely on grinding the others down—a difficult task with a field of this calibre.
He would be confident of outperforming those above him in the individual time trial should they arrive at Stage 20 with the current gaps unchanged.
Basso is hanging in there and is capable of incredible efforts in the mountains. He has built his year around riding in the Tour and has surprised pundits with his form. It will be a difficult task, and he would need a lot to go wrong for other riders.
Contador has shown absolutely no sign of being in the mix this year. Early falls during the first week and an injured knee have left him four minutes behind the leader and two minutes behind his real competition.
He doesn’t look like he's making an impact this year, but he just won’t go away.
The real dark horse is Voeckler. Conventional wisdom predicted that Voeckler would have been left far behind in the Pyrenees, but he didn’t falter once. He matched every move and even launched one or two tentative moves himself.
The Golden Fleece weighs heavy on some riders. Evans, as an example, struggles with the pressure of being Tour leader—his performance always suffers when he is in yellow.
Voeckler, on the other hand, has thrived. For him, the maillot jaune seems to provide energy and stamina. Those who are assuming that he will inevitably go backwards in the Alps or languish in the time trial do so at their peril.
If the contenders continue their cut-and-thrust games, they could well carry Voeckler all the way to Paris, where he just might surprise them all.