Christophe Riblon of AG2R La Mondiale has won a pulsating Stage 18 of the 100th Tour de France on Alpe d'Huez, climbed twice today, to secure the first French stage win of the race. Chris Froome of Team Sky has extended his overall lead to nearly 5 minutes despite being in serious difficulties on the final climb and picking up a 20 second penalty for an illegal feed, with Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff again shipping time. The big winner in the General Classification today was Movistar's Nairo Quintana, who finished fourth and replaces Contador's team mate Roman Kreuziger in third position overall.
Riblon blew past Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing a couple of kilometres from the finish, the American finishing second, 59 seconds down, while the third member of the group that had formed after the first ascent, Cannondale's Moreno Moser, was a further half minute or so back in third.
In winning today on perhaps the most famous summit in cycling, and uniquely after having to tackle it twice, Riblon ensured not only that France will not suffer the shame of having no stage wins for what would only have been the third time in 100 editions of the race, but also that he'll probably never have to buy a drink again in his home country.
Froome was clearly in trouble in the latter part of that final climb, finishing more than a minute behind Quintana, but there were repercussions for Team Sky after Richie Porte moved back to the team car to fetch a gel for his flagging team leader at a point of the race when resupplying food and water is banned.
Froome was given a 20 second penalty but still gains more time on Contador today, and the Spaniard will be ruing the fact that if the Team Sky rider, who had looked increasingly ashen-faced on the climb, had cracked, the gap between first and second may well have narrowed rather than increased.
Contador himself had managed to get ahead of Froome prior to the final climb of Alpe d'Huez but was reeled back by a Movistar team riding strongly for Quintana; the Saxo-Tinkoff man immediately swapped bikes, with reports suggesting that the reason for doing that was the revelation that scrutineers from world cycling's governing body, the UCI would be weighing bikes at the end of the stage to ensure that they comply with the minimum permissible weight of 6.8 kilograms.
Threatened thunderstorms failed to materialise, meaning that the 172.5 kilometre stage from Gap – the most eagerly anticipated of the 100th Tour de France – was raced in full, with a contingency plan put in place if there had been a downpour for the stage to finish with the initial ascent of Alpe d’Huez.
The reason for that was the additional danger that would have been posed to the riders by wet roads on the twisting, vertiginous descent of the Category 2 Col du Sarenne, which came between those two rides up Alpe d’Huez.
As it transpired, the main drama on the way back down to the valley floor involved the man who would later take the stage win, Riblon skidding as he came through a corner shaded by trees, where the sun had not yet dried out water left from an earlier shower.
Somehow, he managed to stay upright and avoid crashing into the trees and foliage on the outside of the corner.
It wasn’t the only scare he had today; with half a million fans lining Alpe d’Huez, and as the first Frenchman through on both ascents, he had to cope with the unwanted attentions of over-enthusiastic spectators, one draping a flag over him on the first time up, clearly upsetting his rhythm.
Other riders too had close shaves today; at a crucial point while looking to shepherd Froome to the finish, Porte wobbled after his handlebars were struck by a flagpole, the Australian looking back angrily at the culprit; previously, Froome himself had almost crashed into a child who had run into the line he was taking.
There had also been drama earlier on that second climb of the Alpe d’Huez, when a fan running alongside van Garderen, leading at the time, was pushed by another into the American’s path, a collision avoided by mere inches, the BMC rider pushing him away angrily.
As ever, nowhere was the crowd more enthusiastic, and nowhere did it present a greater danger to the riders, than at Dutch Corner, parting at the last moment possible to let the riders through in single file; as on other parts of the climb, attacking there simply wasn’t an option due to the press of bodies.
Riblon had been one of nine men involved in the day’s break, together with van Garderen and Moser, the trio being at the front of the race on their own as it veered off Alpe d’Huez after the first ascent, with 47 kilometres left to ride.
Shortly after cresting the Col de Sarenne 9 kilometres later, van Garderen’s chain dropped and following that subsequent incident involving Riblon, Moser – the first of the trio over the top of Alpe d’Huez – found himself alone on the descent.
They three had regrouped by the time they began the second climb, however, and it was van Garderen who attacked and seemed to be riding off to the stage win.
But Riblon, the best part of a minute down, refused to cave in, and in the final kilometres it was the Frenchman who found a new burst of energy while the American, winner of the best young rider’s competition 12 months ago but whose 2013 campaign never got going after crashes in the first week, was pedalling squares.
Any hopes he may have had of getting onto Riblon’s wheel to try and cling on to contest the stage win were dashed as the AG2R rider went wide and burst past him just at the point where the gradient eased off to ensure his name will be added to the 15th of the mountain’s 21 hairpin bends.
Unlike legends of the sport including the very first Tour de France stage winner here, Fausto Coppi in 1952, Riblon alone has had to climb it twice in order to win.
While the 32-year-old, winner of a summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines in the 2010 Tour de France, was carving his name into the race’s history, once again the battle in the General Classification was exploding into life in what, despite Froome's dominance in terms of time over his rivals, is turning out to be a thrilling race.
Following that earlier move by Contador and Kreuziger, Movistar, whose work in chasing them down put paid to any pre-stage thoughts of a Spanish alliance to thwart Sky’s ambitions, set a punishing pace as the overall contenders’ group headed onto the Alpe d’Huez for the second time.
Early on the climb, Belkin’s Bauke Mollema, who lost second place on the General Classification to Contador following yesterday’s individual time trial, was in trouble; he ended today sixth overall, 2 seconds shy of 9 minutes adrift of Froome.
The Dutchman was distanced by an attack by Froome, who was looking strong with around 10 kilometres to go and whose camaraderie with Porte was clear to see; smiles between the pair, and a hug from Froome suggested Porte’s work was done for the day as he dropped back, but he would have a key, if controversial, role to play later.
Shortly afterwards, Kreuziger cracked and next to go was his team leader Contador, the damage done by a burst of acceleration from Daniel Moreno of Katusha, working for Rodriguez, and before long, the latter had just Froome and Quintana for company as they proved the only men capable of getting back to him.
But with Froome starting to struggle and Quintana looking by far the strongest of the three, Porte managed to get back into that small group to help his leader, most crucially when Froome hit a wall, gesturing back to the team car, with it becoming apparent once Porte returned that the issue was one to do with his energy levels, and not a mechanical problem.
With around a third of the climb remaining, and Quintana going strongly, it could have been a pivotal moment in the race; the illegal feed meant however that Froome was able to recover and limit his losses to the Colombian, and the 20 second penalty imposed on him – as well as Porte – is unlikely to affect the outcome of the overall, assuming he makes it through the remaining two mountain stages unscathed.
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.