AX-3 DOMAINES, France » With the Pyrenees all too ready to punish riders, overall leader Andy Schleck and defending champion Alberto Contador sized each other up, matching wits and pedal strokes in a high-altitude waiting game at the Tour de France.
Yesterday’s victory belonged to Christophe Riblon, a relatively unknown Frenchman who won a stage in cycling’s showcase race for the first time.
Riblon, who rides for AG2R, was spurred by a French crowd that has had little to celebrate at the Tour in recent years.
"Yesterday … if you’d asked me about today, I wouldn’t have bet one euro on me," he said. "It’s different now, of course. What I have done today is very important, for me and my team."
Schleck leads Contador, his closest rival, by 31 seconds. Both arrived with the same time, more than a minute behind Riblon. They lost a few seconds to the next closest contenders, Samuel Sanchez of Spain and Denis Menchov of Russia, but were not unhappy.
"I couldn’t pass him; I had to stay in his wheel," said Schleck of Luxembourg. "I have often enough made the mistake where he attacked and dropped me because I passed him. I learn from my mistakes. But it will be a totally different scenario tomorrow."
Contador said sticking together benefited both riders. They could both make sure other contenders didn’t get too far ahead. Sanchez is 2:31 back in third, with Menchov fourth at 2:44.
"It was a complicated day to get away from the other, so we agreed to catch the group," Contador said.
Schleck and the Spaniard have three more days in the mountains to try to get a jump on the other. That’s particularly important for Schleck, who knows his slender lead is unlikely to be enough in the time trial Saturday.
The 29-year-old Riblon, who combines road cycling with a career on the track, was content to luxuriate in yesterday’s result — the best of his career.
"I’ve been a professional for 5 1/2 years and I’ve been waiting for this for 5 1/2 years," he said.
Lance Armstrong finished more than 15 minutes behind Riblon. The seven-time champion has acknowledged he has no chance of victory.