MONTPELLIER, FRANCE // Thomas Voeckler will be back in the saddle today with the hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders.
As the Tour de France heads toward its decisive stages, the race is still wide and the passionate French fans are hoping Voeckler can keep hold of the yellow jersey.
While Voeckler remains adamant he has a "zero per cent chance" of becoming the first French Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, race enthusiasts are hoping otherwise.
When racing resumes today after a rest day, the riders will head toward the Alps on a medium mountain stage before the first of three high mountain stages.
Once Voeckler hits the Alps, he has to withstand the challenge of Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers on such feared climbs as Col du Galibier, Col d'Izoard and L'Alpe d'Huez - all of them known as HC climbs, or Hors Categorie, because they are too demanding to have a classification.
"I don't think I have their level in the high mountains," Voeckler said with a hint of resignation. "I know what the Alps are like and I'm expecting things to be very difficult."
Voeckler is increasingly popular among French fans, but he does not think things will change for him in the peloton.
"You don't get a helping hand in the mountains, you can either follow or you can't," he said. "I'm not expecting any help other than from my teammates."
He has worn the yellow jersey before, in 2004 when Lance Armstrong won the race for the sixth consecutive time.
French hearts are clearly beating for Voeckler, but he doesn't want to raise the intensity level any higher. "I consider myself to have a zero per cent chance of winning the Tour de France," he said.
With the race so open Andy Schleck claimed yesterday that both he and his brother Frank could both sacrifice their victory chances in a bid to beat Contador.
The Luxembourg siblings, as well as Australia's Evans, are in prime position to end Contador's reign on the event.
Andy, 26, said they will simply do everything they can to make sure one of them finishes on the top step of the podium.
"We know that we both can't win the Tour, at least not in the same year," said Andy, the runner-up in 2009 and 2010. "I only see one of being on the podium, but in the yellow jersey."
Frank, 31, who has finished three times in the race's top 10, said that would not be a problem.
"Andy and I understand each other very very well," he said. "If it turns out that one day we have to sacrifice [our chances] for the other, we will do it willingly."
Contador has won the last six Grand Tours in which he has participated, including the Giro d'Italia which he secured for the second time in May.
But after a brutal first nine days of racing, during which he was among the dozens of crash victims, the Spaniard is four minutes down. Starting today he has three days in the Alps in which to attack his rivals if he is going to reduce his deficit.
"Because of the crash, I had to change my pedalling," Contador told a news conference yesterday.
"My [right] knee was hurting so I had to compensate with the other knee and it changed my way of pedalling.
"But I feel better, I'm confident for the Alps."
"I can't win the Tour with the time trial if the standings after Alpe d'Huez [stage 19] are the same as today," he added.
* With agencies