Christophe Riblon of AG2R-La Mondiale recounted this evening how memories of his compatriot Brice Feillu winning the first Pyrenean stage of last year’s Tour de France had inspired him to complete a memorable solo victory as this year’s race hit the Pyrenees today.
He also disclosed how his team’s directeurs sportif had encouraged him to get into an escape today after his performances in the first couple of weeks of the race had left the 29-year-old feeling downcast.
“I was really disappointed with my start of the Tour, because I wanted to do something overall, and it did not work,” explained Riblon after his victory in Ax 3 Domaines, with his remarks quoted on the Tour de France website. “Especially the last two days were very difficult, and I was almost depressed,” he added.
The rider, who hails from the Parisian suburbs, related how directeurs sportif Vincent Lavenu and Julien Jurdi had spoken to him “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,” although he added, “they gave me morale, but last night I would still not bet a euro on me.”
Alone on the final climb from Ax-les-Thermes to Ax 3 Domaines, Riblon recalled how Feillu, now with Vacansoleil but riding last year for the subsequently disbanded Agritubel team, had ridden is way to victory in last year’s Stage 7, which took the race from Barcelona up into the mountains.
“In the final I did not want to say, ‘I won’”, claimed Riblon. “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. 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.”
Riblon said that today’s win had given him insight into how Feillu had managed to keep in front while behind him, the GC contenders were fighting it out as Alberto Contador went on the attack. “When you’re alone in front, with a few kilometers to the finish, the support of the public helps to carry you and it encourage you, it transforms you and gives you strength,” he revealed. “I gave everything and I felt I could not lose.”
Meanwhile, for Contador, there was to be no repeat today of that attack 12 months ago that left behind then team mate Lance Armstrong and helped provide the launch pad for his successful campaign to win back the yellow jersey he had been denied the chance to defend a year earlier due to Astana’s exclusion from the 2008 edition of the race.
Twice on this afternoon’s final climb, the Spaniard had tried to attack Andy Schleck, and twice the Luxembourg rider had gone with him, on a day when the two favourites for the overall title marked each other extremely closely.
Instead, it was the fourth-placed rider on the general classification, Denis Menchov of Rabobank, who made an attack that stuck, joined quickly by Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, who is third overall, but neither Contador nor Schleck went after the pair as they continued to keep a watchful eye on each other.
That tactic almost backfired on the two riders at the top of the GC as Sanchez and Menchov headed away up the road towards the finish, but by the time they crossed the line, Schleck and Contador had pulled the deficit back to just under a quarter of a minute.
This evening, Schleck said that psychology had played its part in today’s cat-and-mouse games between him and Contador. “I have a plan and I wanted to follow it,” he explained. “If Alberto had been really bad, then I would have attacked but he wasn’t bad today – he was actually pretty good, but I was good also,” he added.
The Team Saxo Bank rider continued: “When he did attack, like I said on the climb today, I cannot pass him so I had to stay on his wheel. It was a little bit of mind games between him and me but made enough mistakes for him to drop me – I passed him and pulled because I wanted to make it good… but I learned out of my mistakes.”
With three more stages to come in the Pyrenees, two of them including the Col du Tourmalet, Schleck expects further attacks from the Spaniard but says he is equipped to deal with them. “Tomorrow will be totally different but now it was clear that I could not have passed him because he would have attacked and gained seconds on me,” he said. “I am relaxed, of course, but it’s not easy. It’s stressful and I’ve got a lot of pressure on my shoulders. I won’t break down. I can handle it – pressure motivates me – but it’s not easy.”
He added that he had taken some encouragement from the fact that Contador had been unable to launch a successful attack this afternoon. “Today was a hard day and Alberto can handle it but the situation he’s in right now is not super,” he claimed. “It’s not bad either but again today 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.”
Schleck continued: “I don’t know how he feels right now. This is just a guess, but don’t think he’d be happy with how the stage went today. He lost time [on Menchov and Sanchez] and 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. [Alberto] didn’t gain a single second me and I think maybe I was a little better than him today,” he concluded.
The first time the Tour de France went up the Port de Pailhères in 2003, Carlos Sastre took his maiden Tour stage in Ax 3 Domains on a day also remembered for Jan Ullrich’s eventually fruitless attack on Lance Armstrong.
Today, the Spaniard went of fthe front of the peloton on the Pailhères climb once again, and although he was on his own at the start of the final ascent coming out of the town of Ax-les-Thermes, he was eventually caught by the group containing Contador and Schleck, finishing the stage 41 seconds behind that pair, and now lies 15th on the GC.
“I am tired now, but I am content for trying to go for it,” Sastre said afterwards. “I feel better every day and I was especially motivated to race today. I can suffer again on the bike and I am coming closer to my normal self. Volodymir [Gustov] and I attacked at the bottom of the Pailhères but there was a lot of headwind and the favorites didn’t give me too much space,” he continued.
“Today was a special day for me,” added Sastre. “I won here in 2003, and today I had extra motivation. Maybe I cannot win the Tour de France, I am here to fight and do my best. My teammates and helped me as much as they could. We tried, but we couldn’t do it, but if you don’t try, you never know,” he concluded.
Tomorrow’s Stage 15 takes the peloton 187km from Pamiers to Bagneres de Luchon and includes four categorised climbs – the Category 4 Cote de Carla Bayle, the Category 2 Col de Portet d’Aspet and Col des Ares, and finally, the Hors Categorie Col de Balès, the latter providing 19.3km of climbing at an average gradient of 6.3% before a 21.5km descent, with a 1.1km vertical drop, to the finish.
The Col de Balès will be familiar territory to Alexandre Vinokourov, who rode up it on his way to winning a stage of the 2007 Tour de France, the first time the race included the climb. It’s Kim Kirchen whose name appears in the record books now for winning that stage however, after Vinokourov was thrown off the race for testing positive for an illegal blood transfusion following his earlier win in Stage 13's individual time trial in Albi.
Having almost taken a stage win on Friday in Mende after a day-long breakaway before winning yesterday’s Stage 13 in Revel with an audacious attack on the final climb, and also prominent today as he helped tow the group including his team leader Contador up the early part of the day’s last ascent, there must be a question mark over whether Vinokourov has any energy left to make an impact tomorrow. Then again, when it comes to the enigmatic Kazakh, one never knows.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.