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Riblon wins as Contador and Schleck play cat-and-mouse

Stage 14: Revel > Ax 3 Domaines (184.5 km)

Christophe Riblon was the surprise winner on the first day in the Pyrenees as Alberto Contador and yellow jersey Andy Schleck were content to play cat-and-mouse with each other, seemingly oblivious to the attacks of others around them. The Ag2R rider produced the fourth stage win for a French rider in what is proving to be one of the best races for the host country in recent memory.

Stage 14 winner Christophe Riblon

Riblon was the last survivor of a nine-man break which had earlier pulled out a lead of nearly 10 minutes on the peloton. But as Astana upped the pace in pursuit, the escape group gradually dissolved on the hors catégorie Port de Pailhères, leaving Riblon to solo over the summit and on to the final climb of Ax 3 Domaines, where he maintained his form to win by nearly a minute.

Behind him Carlos Sastre launched his own attack in an attempt to repeat his stage victory of 2003 on the same climb. Briefly, it appeared he might present a serious threat to Riblon, but Sastre faded and was eventually swallowed up by a yellow jersey group which had been stripped down to just the leading riders, in large part due to a devastating turn on the front by yesterday’s winner and Contador’s teammate, Alexandre Vinokourov.

Schleck was content to sit on  Contador’s rear wheel, and was able to respond immediately to a couple of short, sharp attacks by the Spaniard, never looking remotely uncomfortable in the process. It was an impressive physical and psychological performance by the yellow jersey, who at one point almost came to a complete standstill as Contador tried to usher him ahead into a position from which he would be able to launch an attack from behind.

While the top two played cat-and-mouse with each other, Denis Menchov and Samuel Sánchez took the opportunity to ride away from them as they approached the summit, eventually gaining 14 seconds – not much, but better than nothing.

With Levi Leipheimer falling away on the climb, Robert Gesink leapfrogged him into sixth place, while Ivan Basso moved up to tenth. But overall it was a day which had little impact on the shape of the GC as everyone looks forward to the greater challenges to come.

Riblon acknowledged the surprise nature of what was by some distance the biggest win of his career:

[My directeurs sportif] talked to me at length, explaining that I’m usually in good shape by the third week of a Tour, so I had to take my chances and go in a breakaway. They gave me morale, but last night I would not have bet a Euro on me.

He added that the support of the crowd – both French and Spanish alike – were a huge benefit to a solo rider:

When you’re alone in front, with a few kilometres to the finish, the support of the public helps to carry you and it encourages you – it transforms you and gives you strength. I gave everything and I felt I could not lose.

Schleck pronounced himself happy with his day’s work, despite his overall lead remaining at a meagre 31 seconds:

Today was a hard day and Alberto can handle it, but the situation he’s in right now is not super. He could not drop me and that gives me a lot of confidence. I was never on the point of being dropped. I felt really good today.

I don’t think he’d be happy with how the stage went today. He could not gain time on me and, as we saw, his team rode on the front all day. His plan was to take time today. Even Vinokourov announced this yesterday. It didn’t work.

Opinion seems to be divided as to which of the leading two came out of today the better. With the time trial to come, the clock would seem to favour Contador as long as he remains within two minutes of the Luxembourger, but Schleck is edging the psychological battles, and appears to be expending less energy by concentrating his effort into a few key stages. His advantage over Contador is derived largely from the pavé of stage three, which came as the resulted of a concerted Saxo Bank team attack rather than any individual effort on his part. And the strain of his attack in the final kilometre of the climb to Avoriaz on stage eight is offset by Contador’s attack on the Montée Laurent Jalabert on Friday.

Energy is very much a finite commodity in a three-week stage race. The more Contador wastes his in launching and aborting attacks like he did today, the greater the physical debt he creates, and the greater the psychological boost to Schleck, who was largely unable to live with Contador’s most powerful accelerations last year. Today, though, he looked sharp and almost serene even on the steepest sections of the final climb, and it seemed to me he was growing in stature and confidence with every turn of the pedals. Is this part of some grand strategy to let the defending champion drain his own reserves, leaving Schleck to produce one big all-or-nothing effort on the Tourmalet to try to crack him decisively? Schleck has certainly referred to racing to a plan a number of times already; he did so again today. If this is true, and his defensive ride today was an indication of tactical maturity rather than the poker face of a man already on his personal limit, it could turn out to be difference between defeating Contador and coming second again.

It will be intriguing to see how this plays out. While Contador rightly remains the favourite; I suspect we will see one massive effort from Schleck that could yet turn expectations on their head. Whatever happens, it won’t be for the want of trying.

Stage 14 result:

1. Christophe Riblon (Ag2R) 2:52:42

2. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +0:54

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) same time

4. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +1:08

5. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) s/t

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 68:02:30

2. Alberto Contador (Astana) +0:31

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:31

4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2:44

5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +3:31

6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +4:27

7. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +4:51

8. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +4:58

9. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +5:56

10. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) +6:52

Selected others:

11. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +7:04

12. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +7:11

13. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +7:17

18. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +11:30

19. Cadel Evans (BMC) +12:39

38. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +39:44

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 187 pts

2. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 185

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 162

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 144

5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 138

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 115 pts

2. Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) 92

3. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 76

4. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 72

5. Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) 68

Stage 15 preview:

Start & finish: Pamiers > Bagnères-de-Luchon

Distance & type: 187.5 km, high mountains

Prediction: On the 100th anniversary of the Tour’s first stage in the Pyrenees, this stage includes the passes of the Portet d’Aspet and the Ares, which featured on the Tour’s first visit to the area. The former features a tricky descent which claimed the life of Fabio Casartelli, then a teammate of a young Lance Armstrong; the fifteenth anniversary of his fatal crash is the day before this stage.

But the biggest challenge today is the Port de Balès, a 19.3 km climb which starts fairly benignly before ramping up dramatically over its second half. There are two particularly vicious stretches of around 12% at around 10 and 15 km, where the weary will feel as if they are pedalling through treacle and which will provide a springboard for fast-accelerating riders such as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck to attack.

The rapid 21 km descent to the finish will also provide chances for the top descenders to claim a win, assuming they can remain within sight of the leaders over the summit. Watch out for someone like Samuel Sánchez to throw caution to the winds here, but the odds are that we will not see a massive shake-up in the GC today.

For more reviews and informed comments about the Tour de France, please read any (or all!) of the following excellent blogs:

Marc’s sports blog

Todd Kinsey’s TDF blog

SportPH

Cyclingproject365

Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road

The social cyclist

Gonecycling

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to Riblon wins as Contador and Schleck play cat-and-mouse

  1. txtmstrjoe says:

    Tim, I certainly don’t feel so bad about not being able to watch the Tour as I used to be able to in years past. Your writeups and analyses are always brilliant, enough so that I can engage my dad in conversations about this year’s Tour whilst he has the advantage of being able to watch the race unfold.

    I hope you never tire of me saying “Merci!” for sharing your wonderful writing.

  2. gonecycling says:

    Great write-up once again, Tim. What a ride by Riblon – can’t wait to see what the race has up its sleeve for us today!

    • Tim says:

      Thank you both!

      I can’t wait to see the final descent today. I read somewhere that on the fastest parts of it they will reach 110 kph (70 mph). Gulp.

      Also, spare a thought today for Fabio Casartelli. who died on today’s descent of the Portet d’Aspet in 1995 – the 15th anniversary of his crash and untimely death was yesterday. We do not forget you, Fabio.

  3. A dangerous game Schleck and Contador were playing yesterday. They are, in theory, too far ahead to worry about Menchov and Sanchez, but can’t afford to forget about them entirely. Exciting stage, and a fantastic one for France.

    Great write-up, as usual!

    • Tim says:

      Menchov in particular may be close enough to threaten Schleck, but I guess the call Andy has to make is does he worry about shoring up second place, or does he focus solely on trying to take first? I don’t think he should try to do both, which is why I think he was absolutely right to let Menchov and Sanchez go yesterday, dangerous though it was. For the sake of 14 seconds, he could have opened himself right up to an attack by Contador which could have cost him the Tour.

      It is, as he said yesterday, a real chess game at the moment, which is what makes it so interesting this year. Obviously that’s very different from when he described it as being like poker earlier in the race … 😉

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