Which one most wants to win the yellow jersey?

AXAT, France (VN) – They blamed the wind. They wouldn’t commit to a full-out attack. They said the others were riding negatively. “They” are the men who the media said raced more like the seven dwarfs than the seven favorites on Saturday’s stage of the Tour de France because of their “after-you-Claude” tactics.

2011 Tour de France, stage 14: Andy Schleck
Just short attacks ... and it wasn't enough.

This was supposed to be the crown jewel of the Pyrenean stages, the one that in its four previous appearances had always been won by the Tour’s eventual winner (see box), but that’s not the case this year. Not even stage 14 winner Jelle Vanendert of Omega-Lotto, who’s lying in 20th place overall, believes he will be on the top step of the podium in Paris next Sunday.

So who will it be? Will it be the remarkable Thomas Voeckler, still in the yellow jersey, who admitted that the others, especially the Schleck brothers, played into his hands on the 15.8km hors-cat Plateau de Beille climb. “They only made short attacks and then sat back, and so I was able to recover each time,” the Europcar team leader said.

The result was a stalemate on the Plateau de Beille, which in its previous four appearances at the Tour always saw the eventual champion put a minute or more on his main rivals — except in 2004, when Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso shared the work in putting time on the rest of the field.

That wasn’t how things went down on Saturday when five of the seven candidates for victory finished within two seconds of each other. The odd ones out of the “seven dwarfs” were Damiano Cunego of Lampre-ISD, who couldn’t follow all the accelerations and lost 39 seconds, and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who was allowed some freedom because of the time he lost on the opening weekend and took back 27 seconds.

Commenting on the repeated (but very short) attacks of his stars Andy and Fränk Schleck, Leopard-Trek team manager Brian Nygaard said, “They all tried and nobody could make a difference, which just goes to show that this Tour will be very interesting.”

PLATEAU DE BEILLE STAGE

(showing main GC riders)

1998 (stage speed 32.33 kph)
1. Pantani
3. Julich at 1:33
8. Ullrich at 1:40

2002 (stage speed 33.31 kph)
1. Armstrong
3. Beloki at 1:04
6. Rumsas at 1:23

2004 (stage speed 33.81 kph)
1. Armstrong
2. Basso s.t.
4. Klöden at 1:27

2007 (stage speed 36.28 kph)
1. Contador
4. Leipheimer at 0:40
7. Evans at 1:52

2011 (stage speed 32.25 kph)
2. Sanchez
3. A. Schleck at 0:25
4. Evans at 0:27
6. Contador s.t.
8. F. Schleck s.t.
11. Basso s.t.
12. Cunego at 1:06

The Schlecks’ main rival Cadel Evans of BMC Racing didn’t see it that way. The 34-year-old Australian knows that he can beat the Schlecks by a minute or two in the final time trial, and so he can focus on defense rather than offense.

He was not impressed by the Schlecks’ tactics on the closing climb. “The Schleck brothers are there, they ride all day, they’ve got the yellow jersey to gain and then they look at me to pull for them,” Evans said. “Hang on a second. I’m not here to tow you to Paris.”

In regard to his own performance, Evans said, “These stages are hard and you have to gauge your efforts really carefully.”

Many were surprised that defending champion Alberto Contador was so passive on a climb that gave him his first Tour stage win four years ago — though many believe Contador is just nursing his injured knee in the hope that he will be 100 percent for the next two summit finishes.

On Saturday, Contador only made sustained efforts when he needed to respond to the accelerations by the Schlecks. So when his Saxo Bank-SunGard team boss Bjarne Riis was asked to comment on the favorites either not daring or not caring to make a full-out attack, Riis said, “I think it’s both. I don’t think anybody had the power to make the difference.”

As for Team RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel, who coached Contador for his Tour victories in 2007 and 2009, he felt that the Schlecks missed an opportunity on Saturday when Contador was not at his best.

“They put their riders on the front up the Agnes [the steep Cat. 1 climb 60km from the finish] but they should have ridden much harder and split the peloton,” Bruyneel said. “They also had two men in the break, who could have been pulled back to help the others in the valley and up the first part of the climb. But perhaps their riders didn’t have the power.”

Riis saw one reason for Saxo Bank’s lack of success — other than Andy Schleck gaining two seconds in a late kick. He felt that Fränk Schleck was hurting in the finale and said, “I think he was not super today. It was his first weakness.”

Curiously, the Schlecks said the Plateau de Beille climb was not hard enough to make a difference, but that seemed a strange conclusion when one saw riders further down the field come into the finish in various states of fatigue. RadioShack’s Dmitriy Muravyev, after crossing the line in 49th at 10 minutes, collapsed and lay prone on the road for long minutes.

So maybe the main contenders were simply saving their best until the next climbing stages, starting in the Alps next Wednesday. We can only hope that by then the seven dwarfs really have become giants of the road, and that we will see a true battle for the yellow jersey on the Galibier and at L’Alpe d’Huez.

VIRTUAL GC (after stage 14 )

1. Fränk Schleck, 2,448.5km in 61:05:59
2. Cadel Evans, at 0:17
3. Andy Schleck, at 0:26
4. Ivan Basso, , at 1:27
7. Samuel Sanchez, at 1:55
6. Alberto Contador, at 2:11
5. Damiano Cunego, at 2:12
8. Tom Danielson, at 3:57
14. Rigoberto Uran, at 6:06
15. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 6:31
12. Rein Taaramae, at 7:13
11. Haimar Zubeldia, at 8:01
10. Peter Velits, at 8:12
9. Nicolas Roche, at 9:07
16. Jérôme Coppel, at 11:14
13. Levi Leipheimer, at 14:59
18. Christian Vande Velde, at 19:17
19. Ryder Hesjedal, at 21:54

17. Tony Martin, at 25:17
20. Robert Gesink, at 33:32