MONTPELLIER, France (AP) — Thomas Voeckler kept up with the big Tour de France favorites in the mountains. He's had the yellow jersey for six days. And cycling experts such as Lance Armstrong think the Frenchman could even take the treasured shirt home when the race ends on July 24.
The biggest nonbeliever? Voeckler himself.
"I will fight of course, but I mustn't be dishonest," Voeckler said after retaining the overall lead in the flat 15th stage, won Sunday by British sprint star Mark Cavendish. "I consider that I have zero percent chance of winning the Tour de France."
For many French fans, Voeckler's surprising success has rekindled cautious optimism that the ultimate in Tour glory could return home for the first time since Bernard Hinault got the last of his five victories in 1985.
Voeckler isn't going there.
"I don't want to lie to the public," he said. "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.'"
Such humility has been rare at cycling's premier event in recent years, when riders such as Armstrong or three-time champion Alberto Contador of Spain made winning their primary job — and unabashedly bared their ambition from the get-go.
For Voeckler, it may just be about managing expectations.
"It's not a question of wanting. Everybody would like to win the Tour," Voeckler said. "It's true that since Bernard Hinault, the French people want a winner — I really sense it well."
Voeckler leads Frank Schleck of Luxembourg by 1 minute, 49 seconds, and Cadel Evans of Australia is third, 2:06 back. Schleck's younger brother Andy is 2:15 behind in fourth and Ivan Basso of Italy is fifth — 3:16 behind off the pace. Three-time champ Alberto Contador of Spain is seventh, 4 minutes behind.
Voeckler doesn't expect to hold off probable attackers in two punishing days in the Alps on Thursday and Friday, each featuring uphill finishes. Then, on Saturday, there's a final individual time trial — a discipline in which he isn't among the best — in and around Grenoble. The race ends Sunday.
For the most part, the commentary this year has been that Contador, two-time runners-up Evans and Andy Schleck, plus the former Armstrong runner-up and longer-shot Basso — have yet to battle. Voeckler, in a way, has been cast as just a bump in their road.
But after three days in the Pyrenees that ended Saturday, where he surprisingly held on to the jersey, the big contenders are increasingly taking the Frenchman seriously.
"Voeckler is in incredible form," said Contador, who hasn't been beyond using mind games since winning the Tour in 2007 and the last two years. "He has a big lead, it will be hard to make that up."
Evans, referring to the general classification, or overall race standings, said: "It's still a bit strange because I think people still look at the Schleck brothers as favorites, but they're two minutes down on the GC — so it's still about Voeckler for now."
Lance Armstrong knows the French rider well: He wrested the yellow jersey from Voeckler after his 10-day run in it at the 2004 Tour. Armstrong tweeted Saturday that if Voeckler finished Saturday's Pyrenean stage with the favorites "then we have to say he can win the TdF." He did.
The seven-time Tour champion then went further in his analysis.
"Final TT is 42km. He's French. It's the Tour de FRANCE," Armstrong wrote, referring to the final time trial. "He won't lose 2:06 in the final time trial ASSUMING... He keeps them close on Alpe d'Huez."
Fellow French riders who've seen Voeckler up close recently are cautious, with one floating the more reasonable expectation that he could become the first French podium finisher since Richard Virenque was second in 1997.
"I think he can limit the damage in the big Alpine stages, but the last time-trial ..." Cofidis team rider Samuel Dumoulin said. "A place in the top five is possible or even, in the right circumstances, a place on the podium."
Voeckler and his squad want to just race — and see how things turn out, possibly as a way to manage expectations — and sidestep the question: Can he really win?
"I don't answer this question — and I don't ask it myself," said Jean-Rene Bernardeau, manager of Voeckler's Europcar squad. "Thomas will give everything he can in the next week."
As for Saturday's stage, Voeckler and the contenders cruised across after Cavendish in the mostly flat 119.6-mile route through vineyards from Limoux to Montpellier that favored sprinters
The 26-year-old British rider overcame high winds and "bashing" among riders in the pack for his fourth stage victory this year — and the 19th of his career. He nosed ahead of American Tyler Farrar in second, and Alessandro Petacchi of Italy in third.
Cavendish is now three career stage wins behind Armstrong — who is fifth with 22. Belgium's Eddy Merckx holds the record with 34.
As the stage began, five riders — all about 2 hours behind Voeckler — surged out of the pack at the mile mark, then built a lead of 4:15. But the pack, led by Cavendish's HTC-Highroad team, barreled ahead late in the day and narrowed the gap on the breakaway. It was fully overtaken in the last 2 miles.
"Today was brutal," said American George Hincapie, a teammate of Evans' on the BMC team. "For a transition day it was harder than a lot of the mountain stages we did, it was full-on all day, fighting for position."
"You couldn't let your guard down for one second."
Monday is the second and final rest day before cyclists head into the foothills of the Alps for Stage 16 on Tuesday, a 101-mile ride from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Gap.