Frenchman is last survivor of long breakaway, holds off the big boys as they play cat and mouse behind
Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale) won the fourteenth stage of the Tour de France between Revel and Ax 3 Domaines as the last man standing from a day-long breakaway. He finished alone 54 seconds ahead of Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who’d escaped from a select group of riders on the final kilometres of the climb at the end of the 184.5km stage.
After a long breakaway the stage looked like it would go to the overall contenders but the Frenchman, who took the silver medal in this year’s World Championship Madison on the track, held on to take his biggest victory to date.
“I was really disappointed with my start of the Tour because I wanted to do something overall, and it did not work,” said Riblon after his victory. “Especially the last two days were very difficult, and I was almost depressed.
“Then [AG2R-La Mondiale directors] Vincent Lavenu and Julien Jurdi 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 still not bet a euro on me.
“At the finish I did not want to say ‘I won’. I constantly repeated to myself, ‘I’m going to win’, but I did not want to be sure, not until the last kilometre.
“I remembered last year when I wondered how Brice Feillu had done what he did to win the stage to Andorra Arcalis,” he explained. “We were behind, and I do not understand how we failed to reel him in – how could he have stayed ahead when there were riders chasing him down. Now I realize why he could do it. When you’re alone in front, with a few kilometres to the finish, the support of the public helps to carry you and it encourage you, it transforms you and gives you strength. I gave everything and I felt I could not lose.”
Breakaway gets away but isn’t allowed to get far
A break of 12 riders escaped early on in the stage, but its composition didn’t suit the RadioShack team and it was brought back. Five of its original members managed to reassert themselves though and escaped once more, with the RadioShack team on the front of the bunch. They were: Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions), Amaël Moinard (Cofidis), Pavel Brutt (Katusha) and Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne).
The RadioShack team was still unwilling to let Gutierrez go clear, as he threatened the American team’s lead in the team classification. The red and grey team kept the peloton no more than 20 seconds behind the group for some time so the Spaniard decided to drop back, leaving just the four riders ahead. A counterattack of five riders bridged across soon afterwards, made up of Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux), Stephane Augé (Cofidis), Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale), Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouyges Telecom) and Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick Step); there were now nine up front.
With none of the breakaway riders any threat in the overall classification, the Rabobank lead peloton allowed them to build an advantage of 10’10” after 70km.
The Astana team was clearly in no mood for allowing the break to get too far though, and began setting the pace. Over the next 70km the turquoise and yellow team set a steady tempo on the front of the peloton; by the time the nine leaders hit the bottom of the hors category climb to the Port de Pailhères, they were just 4’15” ahead.
Serious climbing starts and serious climbers move forward
Riders dropped steadily off the lead group as they made their way up the climb, until only Riblon, Moinard and Van de Walle remained.
Almost as soon as the climb began Rafael Valls (Footon-Servetto) attacked from the peloton; the 23-year-old Spaniard was deemed to be of no threat to the overall classification and was allowed to go. Similarly, when Remi Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux) made a move a few minutes later the peloton refused to react.
The next big move came from 2008 winner Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), who was pulled off the front of the peloton on the wheel of his teammate Volodymir Gustov. Despite sitting in 15th place overall, just 7’34” behind yellow jersey Andy Schleck, he was allowed to go too and Astana maintained its fierce pace.
Soon afterwards Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Columbia) became the next rider to go; he managed to latch onto the back of the Cervélo duo
With the Astana team still leading the peloton a number of riders were being dropped off the back, and very soon they reeled Di Gregorio back in. Shortly afterwards, as they neared the mid part of the climb, Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) lost contact with the back of the group.
With the peloton beginning to catch them, Sastre left Gustov behind him and headed off alone; Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne) managed to escape the others and tried to join him.
Schleck, who still had a number of teammates with him, dropped back to speak to his team car; the yellow jersey seemed to be okay though, and made his way back to the front after taking some food and drink on board. As he rejoined the peloton Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) almost seemed to be losing contact. The World champion held on for a few kilometres but was eventually unable to hold on.
The Astana team now had Daniel Navarro, the rider who had been Contador’s last man on the climb to Morzine-Avoriaz, setting the pace.
Riblon alone but with a long way to go
On a steep section at 3km from the top Van de Walle lost contact with the two Frenchman on the steepest part of the climb. Then with just over 1km to the top Riblon attacked and went off alone.
As the peloton neared the summit Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouyges Telecom), wearing the polka-dot mountains jersey, attacked in search of more points at the top. He was chased by Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Farnese Vini), who also wanted points in the competition.
Sastre caught Valls as they approached the summit of the Pailhères. Riblon led over with the two Spanish riders 1’55” behind him; the peloton containing most of the favourites crossed at 2’45”.
On the descent Cunego and Kiryienka joined up with Sastre and Valls, and they in turn caught up with Van de Walle. There was also a regrouping in the peloton on the fast descent as Wiggins and a number of others regain contact.
Moinard almost managed to catch Riblon on the descent, but was still a few hundred metres behind as the 1st category climb to the finish at Ax 3 Domaines started and the AG2R rider accelerated on the steep initial gradient.
Kiryienka found himself dropped quite quickly by Sastre group as they began the climb, while behind them the peloton was led by the Astana duo of Daniel Navarro and Alexandre Vinokourov.
Astana leads the way and not many can follow
Having led up much of the Port de Pailhères, Navarro was unable to set the pace for long; as he pulled off Vinokourov took over setting the pace. The Kazakh increased the pace and managed to splinter the peloton further with a second group containing Roman Kreuziger and Ivan Basso (both Liquigas-Doimo), Chris Horner (RadioShack) and Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) left behind.
Vinokourov put in an attack with 6.5km to go but he was followed by the peloton, but the acceleration whittled the group down to just nine riders. Following th Kazakh were: Contador, Schleck, Menchov, Samuel Sanchez, Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (OmegaPharma-Lotto).
Contador drifted to the back of the line to ride close to Schleck, as the top two of the race began to watch one another.
At just over 5km to go Leipheimer was dropped, but the American managed to come back as Vinokourov stopped setting the tempo and the pace dropped. Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who’d been dropped when Vinokourov had accelerated previously, also managed to pull himself back up.
As the group slowed slightly Contador put in his first attack, but Schleck was immediately on his wheel. The duo caught up with Sastre but, first Menchov, then Samuel Sanchez, then the rest of the group managed to pull them back.
Contador went again with just over 3.5km to go, just as the group passed Moinard, but once again he was marked by Schleck and Menchov. Samuel Sanchez, protecting his third place overall from Menchov also came across followed by the others.
Cat and mouse between the top two as their rivals get away
As the group reformed Contador and Schleck drifted to the back once more and almost coming to a standstill as they watched one another. At the front of the group Gesink began to drive the pace and Schleck and Contador let them ride away.
Menchov attacked once more, after his teammate’s work and he managed to get what looked like a decisive gap. Samule Sanchez gave chase though and caught the Russian just before the summit of the climb with 1.5km to go.
With their rivals riding away, Schleck and Contador finally began to race again; they caught up with the rest of the group but Sanchez and Menchov, third and fourth in the race overall, were still up the road.
Despite all the attacking behind him, Riblon still a minute over the chasers as he crossed the top of the climb. He continued alone on the flat road to the finish, taking his first ever stage of the Tour and France’s fourth in this race. Menchov outsprinted Sanchez 54 seconds behind him, and Schleck led the group in a further 14 seconds back.
Menchov and Sanchez made small time gains in the overall classification, but remain locked at 13 seconds apart in the race for third place. After their cat and mouse games on the final climb the gap between Schleck and Contador also remains static with the Saxo Bank rider 31 seconds ahead.
Result stage 14 1. Christophe Riblon (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale
2. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank @ 54s
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
4. Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank @ 1’08
5. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Team Katusha
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
7. Alberto Contador (Spa) Team Astana
8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) OmegaPharma-Lotto
9. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini @ 1’49”
10. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervélo TestTeam
Standings after stage 14 1. Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Team Astana @ 31s
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi @ 2’31”
4. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank @ 2’44”
5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) OmegaPharma-Lotto @ 3’31”