After seventeen stages, the contrast between the maillot jaune incumbent and its wannabe could not be more apparent, writes Anthony Tan from Pinerolo, Italy.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

Before I lose face, it's time to revise my prognostic on Thomas
Voeckler: by the time the race finishes in Paris, four days from now, he
will not be standing on the podium.

Until yesterday's stage to
Gap, the 32-year-old had shown not just the trademark courage he's
largely made his own since his groundbreaking 2004 Tour de France, but
an ability never seen before.

He climbed with the very best to
Luz-Ardiden. He did it again to the Plateau de Beille. But the past two
days, it's become evident that his week in yellow has insidiously begun
to take its toll.

However, after his near-miss with fate in
today's seventeenth stage, on the sinuous final descent of the Côte de
Pramartino, he says he's simply happy to be alive and still kicking in
the maillot jaune.

"I tried to attack on the downhill
because I wanted to gain some seconds, but instead… I think I went
beyond my limits on the descent," Voeckler said.

"In fact, I'm very lucky to be here right now, so that's why I'm not disappointed that I lost time today."

Losing
21 seconds to Cadel Evans yesterday and a further 27 seconds today,
Voeckler's advantage to the man we hope to be the first Australian to
win the Tour has been stripped back to a lean 1:18.

Normally
fearless and fluid on descents, Voeckler, who was right on his limit
over the top of the Pramartino climb, its summit eight kilometres from
the finish in Pinerolo, showed what cumulative fatigue and redlining his
motor can do to a man.

"Normally, when you make the first
mistake on a downhill, it's difficult to go the right way for the rest
of the descent. I wanted to follow [Alberto] Contador and [Samuel]
Sanchez but maybe it was wiser to go with Evans and [Andy] Schleck.

"The
second time I went off the road," said Voeckler, "I had no time for
reflection. There were steps on the side of the road, so what I did was
close my eyes, lift my front wheel, and when I opened my eyes, I was
still on my bike.

"I was already very tired from the climb, so when you are at that point when you are giving it all, you are not lucid enough."

At
this point in the race and with two of the hardest stages to come,
Voeckler has no opportunity left to recover. Even before he starts the
Grenoble time trial, he will, most likely, be as lively as a dead
dingo's donger.

Tomorrow, on the final climb of the Col du
Galibier, although not overly steep with an average of just 4.9 percent,
I expect him to crack.

* * *

Now contrast Voeckler's
physical decay against the resurgence of Contador, and even though his
daring move with Samuel Sanchez did not pay off, it demonstrates Bertie
will not be wondering what might've been by the time we reach Paris.

After
the stage to Gap, the defending Tour champ said Sanchez "can be a great
ally" – which effectively gives Contador an extra team-mate as we head
to the Galibier tomorrow and Alpe d'Huez Saturday.

But from the
past two stages, what appears clear is that Contador cares little for
who goes with him. To attack is his only option, and until he closes the
gap to Evans, he will do so repeatedly until someone cracks – even if
it that someone is Contador himself.

This is proving to be an intriguing Grande Boucle, for until this year, we have never seen the Spaniard so far on the back foot.

In
the previous six Grand Tours he's won, Contador has never encountered
such misfortune, nor has he been in this position. If he wins the
sport's blue riband prize from here, it will go down as one of the most
spectacular comebacks in Tour de France history.

But only the Court of Arbitration for Sport can say whether he can keep it.


Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_tan