France’s Voeckler fends off attacks to retain Tour lead

By The Associated Press

The 32-year-old Frenchman responded to several attacks in the punishing climb to Plateau de Beille in the 14th stage _ the last in the Pyrenees _ to keep hold of the overall leader’s yellow jersey.

Voeckler clenched his fist in celebration as he crossed the finish line in the same group as the rest of the contenders after a 105-mile trek featuring six ascents.

Having taken the jersey last Sunday, he looks set to keep it until the first big Alpine stage on Thursday at least.

“I would lie if I said that I expected to keep the jersey, but I was more optimistic than I was two days before the Luz Ardiden stage,” said Voeckler, who rides for the unheralded Europcar team. “On the last climb today, I was really surprised that I was with all the favorites. At the end, it was very hard for me. But I realized that it was the same for them.”

The 32-year-old Voeckler, who leads Frank Schleck of Luxembourg by 1 minute, 49 seconds, has gained the respect of his peers.

Cadel Evans and Schleck’s younger brother Andy, who have shared the past four runner-up places, praised his fighting spirit.

“Voeckler is really good,” said Evans, who lags 2:06 behind the Frenchman. “Everyone has been saying, ‘He’s going to lose yellow,’ but I’m like, ‘No way!’ I think he’s going to go a few more days at least. He hangs in there every day and I imagine that he’s incredibly motivated here in France.”

Andy Schleck said he had never seen Voeckler in such impressive form before.

“People say the yellow jersey can give you wings. For him it surely does,” said Schleck, who is 2:15 off the pace in fourth place.

While the big challenge between Tour favorites has yet to begin, Voeckler has been the talk of the Tour so far. Known for his bold temperament but seen as limited in high mountains and time trials, Voeckler had expected to lose the leader’s jersey in the Pyrenees.

But he defied the odds during three days of suffering.

“It’s hard for me to believe that I’m in yellow after the Pyrenees with almost the same gap that I had before the Pyrenees,” he said. “I won’t understand it if it continues like this for the last week because it’s unbelievable for me. It’s like a dream.”

Voeckler first made his name when he wore the yellow jersey for 10 days seven years ago, defending it with courage in the Pyrenees before surrendering to Lance Armstrong.

Voeckler’s dazzling performance and tenacity in the climb to Plateau de Beille on Sunday impressed the seven-time Tour de France winner.

“If Voeckler makes it to the top w/ the leaders today then we have to say he can win the TdF,” Armstrong said on Twitter. “He’s got 2 mins and they can’t shake him.”

With only two more big mountain stages and a time trial before the race reaches the Champs Elysees on July 24, Voeckler can be considered a contender for a podium finish.

“We’re not dreamers, we just try to do our job,” he said. “It’s a great surprise for us to manage and control the race and for me to be with the favorites at the end, but we have to keep quiet and do out job.”

In the final climb, Andy Schleck first launched an attack with 6 miles to go, and Voeckler followed. The Luxembourg rider attacked again about a mile later, but Voeckler stayed calm.

The Frenchman was also unfazed when Italian rider Ivan Basso tried his luck several times in the last 3 miles.

“There was so much wind before the last climb that I said to myself: ‘Stay on the wheels of the favorites and try to follow them,’” Voeckler said. “Finally, I understood that they were not so much better than me. I kept on trying and each time they attacked, I tried to go. As they were all together the pace was a little slower and I was able to finish with them.”

Voeckler thinks he is a far better rider than in 2004. But he is adamant he wouldn’t have been able to follow Armstrong and Basso that year.

“Compared to the year I turned pro, in 2001, things are going far better in cycling,” Voeckler said. “But I don’t want to compare myself to others, because I realized several years ago that I should not pay attention to what other people do. I just want to ride with my ideas. The rest is just a waste of energy.”