Stage 14 from Revel to Ax 3 Domaines yields breakaway win for Christophe Riblon of AG2R-La Mondiale
In a day that everyone thought would surely show a move by Alberto Contador (Astana) to claim the yellow jersey worn by race leader Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), instead we witnessed a stalemate on the slopes of the beyond-category climb to the summit of Port de Pailheres that ended in a surpise breakaway win for Christophe Riblon of AG2R-La Mondiale.
Despite his team’s best efforts to position him for a successful attack against first-placed Schleck, Alberto Contador unhappily failed to capitalize on the move by Astana and could neither gain any time on his rival nor wrest the yellow jersey from his shoulders. As for Andy Schleck, who is not as strong a time-trialler as Contador, he has failed to gain any kind of valuable buffer of time against the Spaniard as they head towards the decisive penultimate stage in the Tour — the individual time trial in Stage 19 from Bordeaux to Pauillac. The two main contenders played a cagey game of cat and mouse today, and remain separated by a slim 31-second margin as they head deeper into the Pyrenees tomorrow on Stage 15 from Pamiers to Bagneres-de-Luchon.
At the start of today’s stage, an early nine-man breakaway consisting of Geraint Thomas (GBR/Sky), David Zabriskie (USA/Garmin Transitions), Pavel Brutt (RUS/Katusha), Stephane Auge (FRA/Cofidis), Amaël Moinard (FRA/Cofidis), Benoît Vaugrenard (FRA/FDJ), Christophe Riblon (FRA/AG2R), Jurgen van de Walle (BEL/Quick Step), and Pierre Rolland (FRA/Bbox), surged free from the main peloton, and within 70 km had managed to extend their lead by ten minutes.
But with 85 km to go, a hard drive by Contador’s Astana team to set a blistering pace at the front of the peloton began to reel in the nine-man breakaway, and cut that lead to eight minutes. As the Astana train continued to roar across the French countryside, the decimating effects were rippling within the peloton.
A noteworthy consequence of this move was the further implosion of former champion Lance Armstrong (Team Radio Shack), who was dropped off the back of the peloton on the climb. The seven-time winner of the Tour de France lost precious minutes as he slipped further back in the overall classification. In spite of his pre-race assertions that we would see “surprises” from his team on today’s stage, the erstwhile leader of Radio Shack has failed to make good on any of those claims and now stands nearly 40 minutes behind the yellow jersey leader in 38th place overall.
As today’s race continued to press onwards, the breakaway group began to splinter and attacks from the main peloton started to add to the mayhem on the roads. Carlos Sastre, who won the Tour de France in 2008, and his Cervelo teammate Volodymir Gustav attacked with 40km remaining to race, and managed to extend their lead over the peloton by 45 seconds as they moved past the shelled breakaway riders.
At the 10 km kite, Daniel Navarro and yesterday’s stage winner Alexander Vinokourov of Astana smashed the main group to bits with their relentless drive to position their team leader Contador. This splintered the bunch to an elite group of eight contenders that consisted of Schleck, Contador, third-placed Sammy Sanchez, Denis Menchov, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Joaquin Rodriguez, Luis Leon Sanchez, and Levi Leipheimer, Radio Shack’s current contender for the GC classification.
Contador attacked with 4 km to go and was immediately countered by Schleck, along with Denis Menchov of Rabobank. A second attack by Contador yielded the same results, as the Spaniard failed to shake the nimble Luxembourg lad. By this time they had caught Carlos Sastre, who was spent from his earlier attacking efforts and had lost all hopes of a stage win today.
With less than 2 km to go, Contador and Schleck continued to shadow box, and at one point seemed to be frozen on the mountainside, as their dancing duel on the pedals looked more like some kind of slow-motion track stand. This proved to be nothing but a time waster for the duo, as Denis Menchov, apparently fed up with the staring match between Schleck and Contador, broke free from them and went on the attack with third-ranked GC rider Sammy Sanchez. This proved a prudent move, as they finished second and third behind the day’s stage winner Christophe Riblon, with both Sanchez and Menchov gaining valuable time in the overall classification.
For Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, the day ended up with neither man showing his hand, and the poker-faced finish to Stage 14 in Ax 3 Domaines has done little to sort out who is holding the ace up their sleeve.
Tomorrow’s Stage 15 will be another hard day of racing from Pamiers to Bagnères-de-Luchon, as the riders will be challenged by the HC climb up Port-de-Bales. Andy Schleck has said that this climb is more suited to his style, so perhaps tomorrow we will see a throwdown on the table. But with four more days in the Pyrenees, it’s still anyone’s game to win or lose. And two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, who reveals little in his pre-and post-race interviews, has been working at hiding his tells.
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