This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
It's taken two-and-a-half weeks, but France finally claimed its first stage win of this year's Tour de France – and on the greatest cycling stage of all – when Ag2r La Mondiale's Christophe Riblon took a sensational solo victory at Alpe d'Huez.
After being dropped by BMC's Tejay van Garderen on the Alpe's early ramps as the break of the day tackled the famous ascent for the second time, Riblon gradually clawed back a deficit of 45 seconds on the second half of the climb and finally bridged up to the struggling American with just two kilometres remaining.
Riblon didn't hesitate before attacking hard on van Garderen's right. Although Riblon kept looking back to make sure of his advantage, van Garderen, who had looked outstandingly strong all day but was by now almost totally spent, was completely unable to respond. The Frenchman began his celebrations before swinging around the final left-hander up to the line, where French fans acclaimed him with huge roars.
Riblon was ecstatic on the podium
France's first success of this 100th Tour was also Riblon's first victory since he won at Ax 3 Domaines in the 2010 Tour. His most difficult moment occurred on the much-debated descent off the Col de Sarenne, where a shower added a dangerous sheen to the patched up surface.
Riding with Cannondale's Moreno Moser after van Garderen's chain had unshipped and temporarily halted him, Riblon hit a damp patch on a tight left-hander and went straight through the bend into the shrubbery at the side of the road. Fortunately, he stayed upright and was quickly under way again. Ultimately, the doggedness he's shown throughout this race paid off.
"We've been trying to win a stage since the start of the Tour de France. It's been a real fight. This is the fourth time I've been in the break," said Riblon. "With five kilometres to go I thought I'd have to accept second place, but my directeur sportif told me to go for it, that van Garderen was going to crack. When I saw van Garderen, I thought: ‘It's Alpe d'Huez. I saw this climb at the Tour de France when I was 10 years old.' I thought I'd lost it. But it's incredible to have won."
Asked about the loss of team leader Jean-Christophe Peraud, who crashed out in yesterday's time trial, Riblon said, "In our team meeting this morning we said that we had to put the bad luck we've had at the Tour behind us. It was a pity we lost our GC hopes yesterday, but we had to go out and do something. We had to get to the front and go for the stage win so that we can walk away from the Tour with our heads high."
Behind the duel between Riblon and van Garderen, the battle for the yellow jersey was just as absorbing. Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff team were on the offensive throughout the stage, but the Spaniard was unable to respond when Team Sky's race leader Chris Froome attacked on the lower slopes of Alpe d'Huez. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) did get across to the yellow jersey. When Contador failed to respond, Richie Porte also scampered across to this trio, and how Froome needed him higher on the climb.
Contador was on the offensive early but was unable to respond to Froome's attack
The race leader looked comfortable until, 5km from home, he started signalling for his team car. Porte eased off from pace-making duties to confer with his leader, then dropped back to the team car to pick up a gel and a bottle.
With Froome looking weak for the first time in this race, Quintana and Rodríguez rode hard to press home their advantage. Both riders gained a minute on the Briton, who subsequently received a 20-second time penalty for receiving food outside permitted areas. Froome's consolation was that he still gained a minute on Saxo's Contador and Roman Kreuziger.
"There was no huge setback. I think myself and Richie were OK. Richie was definitely better than I was today," Froome revealed. "I was running out of sugars and so had to ask him to go back and get some from the car.
"We had a mechanical problem with the car so it wasn't with us at the bottom of the last climb, that was the problem. I was just getting in [to the finish] the best I could in the last few kilometres. I don't know if getting something from the car made any difference really."
The race leader then tipped Quintana to finish in the top three in Paris. "Contador and Kreuziger were our biggest threat going into today, but it was good to hear on the radio that they dropped back. It was good for Quintana to get some time today. I definitely think he's going to finish on the podium of the Tour," he said.
Froome suffered towards the end but extended his lead over Contador
How it unfolded
The stage started frantically on the climb of the Col de Manse, as Saxo-Tinkoff riders tried from the off to send riders up the road with a view to them providing support later in the stage for Contador and Kreuziger. Every Sky rider had to ride hard to respond, including Froome, who was forced to chase after Contador had attempted to go clear.
The pace in the bunch eased when a nine-man break formed. In addition to van Garderen, Riblon and Moser, Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), Lars Boom (Belkin), Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard), Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ.fr) and Andrey Amador (Movistar) were in the move.
Their advantage went out to more than four minutes as they climbed the Ramp du Motty, where Saxo-Tinkoff went on the attack again. This time Sergio Paulinho and Nicolas Roche did manage to get clear, although the Saxo pair never managed to make it up to the front group and fell back to the peloton the first time up Alpe d'Huez.
The double-Alpe stage proved a hit with the fans
Going through the intermediate sprint in Bourg d'Oisans, the nine leaders had extended their advantage to eight minutes over the Sky-led peloton. Once on the climb, van Garderen and Riblon eased away from the other riders in the front group, with Moreno not far behind this pair.
Sky kept a tight rein on the peloton as it went up the Alpe for the first time, Ian Stannard, Kanstantsin Siutsou and David López each doing long pulls on the front. The only riders to escape from Sky's grip were Europcar duo Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland, Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel), Vacansoleil's Wout Poels and a resurgent Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard).
Sky's attempts to maintain a steady pace down the Sarenne were thwarted when Roman Kreuziger went to the front, opened a gap and, moments later, Contador accelerated after his teammate. Clearly hoping they could put Sky and Froome under pressure on the technical descent, they opened a gap of 20 seconds, but were reeled in with Schleck's group when the road opened out, heading back towards Bourg d'Oisans.
Up ahead, van Garderen and Riblon once again proved too strong for Moser on the initial steep ramps of Alpe d'Huez. The American then pressed again, leaving the Frenchman to ride at his own pace and, it seemed, for second place. The BMC rider, who's of Dutch descent, got a fantastic reception as he went through Dutch corner, but began to fade soon after. This was Riblon's moment.
Encouraged by his director, the Frenchman responded fantastically, giving France a much-awaited victory on the most eagerly awaited stage of the Tour.