Frenchman Christophe Riblon claimed a deserved maiden Tour de France victory on the race's 14th stage in Ax-3-Domaines Sunday as an anticipated yellow jersey battle failed to materialise.
Race leader Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank retained the race lead with his 31-sec lead on main rival Alberto Contador of Spain intact after the pair stubbornly played poker games with each other on the race's two difficult climbs.
Instead, podium hopefuls Samuel Sanchez of Spain and Russian Denis Menchov were given unexpected freedom in the final third of the 7.8km climb to the summit finish here to close their respective deficits.
As Riblon finished off an impressive solo performance to claim his first success on the race, Sanchez and Menchov crossed the line together at 52secs adrift. Schleck and Contador came over the finish around 15secs later.
Riblon, who also has a parallel career as a track cyclist, had been part of an eight-man breakaway which formed early in the stage and which held a lead of over 10 minutes on the peloton.
As their lead steadily dropped as Contador's Astana team upped the pace in the chasing peloton, Riblon broke free of compatriot Amael Moinard with 2km to race to the summit of the 15.5km Port de Pailheres.
After the long descent, he began the final climb with Moinard chasing but he upped the pace again on the 7.8km climb to give himself a sufficient cushion to complete the climb unchallenged.
"I don't know what to say, I'm just too emotional," said Riblon, who was congratulated by Schleck after the Luxembourger's arrival.
"Today I felt like I really had good legs, and so I went for it. Given the fact that Astana were chasing hard behind the breakaway, my victory feels even more valuable.
"I did a good climb. It's the kind of result I've been after for a long time."
Schleck admitted to playing mind games with Contador. But the Luxembourger said he is happy to wait to take more time off the Spanish ace if it means finishing the race in Paris with the yellow jersey.
"He played poker, I played poker, we both played poker today," said Schleck. "I can afford to lose time to the others but I had to play the game today. Tomorrow will be different.
"I want to win this Tour."
Contador tried to shake Schleck off his wheel at the 5km then 4km to go marks, although his accelerations were brief and lacked conviction.
In the end Menchov and Sanchez benefited from the poker games to attack unchallenged.
It was only in the final two kilometres that Contador and Schleck threw in their cards in a bid to limit the damage being done ahead of them.
"We toyed with each other, but I think I finished the day on top," said Contador, who could decide simply to limit his time losses to Schleck throughout the Pyrenees ahead of Saturday's 50km time trial, a discipline in which he is superior to Schleck.
"But I don't think the final climb was hard enough for either of us to take time off each other. In the end we decided to collaborate to chase down Menchov and Sanchez."
Euskaltel's Sanchez closed his overnight deficit of 2:45 to 2:31, with Menchov staying in fourth at 2:44.
A number of pre-race contenders continued to see their respective campaigns crumble, with Lance Armstrong dropped early on the 15.5km climb to the summit of Pailheres.
Australians Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, Britain's Bradley Wiggins and American Levi Leipheimer were left among the strugglers on the final climb.
Leipheimer is RadioShack's main hope of a podium place after Armstrong's stunning collapse on the first high mountain stage last week but the Californian dropped one place to seventh to 4:51 behind Schleck as Menchov's Rabobank teammate, Dutchman Robert Gesink, moved up to sixth.
© AFP 2010
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