Christophe Riblon gave France their fourth stage win of the Tour de France when he held on to win at Ax-3-Domaines.
The AG2R rider was part of a nine-man break that went clear after 25 kilometres of the 14th stage from Revel.
But it was the cagey cat-and-mouse tactics of the maillot jaune Andy Schleck and his nearest rival Alberto Contador on the final climb that had viewers on the edge of their seat.
Schleck was able to respond to a number of accelerations by Contador and the Spaniard, seemingly frustrated at his inability to shake off the Saxo Bank rider, decided to slow down.
However, Schleck called his bluff and the two riders came came to a walking pace, allowing the third and fourth-placed riders overall – Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel and Denis Menchov of Rabobank to capitalise.
It was a moment of drama on a day when the overall picture was jiggled but not shaken up.
Riblon’s reward for his aggression and bravery was the stage win. After Sylvain Chavanel’s two and Sandy Casar’s victory, it is the fourth for the French. The last time France had four or more stage wins to celebrate was in 1997, the year before the Festina Affair contributed to French cycling plunging into the darkness.
The early break set the pattern for the day. Riblon was joined by the British road race champion Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), David Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions), Amael Moinard, Stephane Augé (both Cofidis), Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick Step), Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), Benoit Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux) and Pavel Brutt (Katusha).
Their lead reached a maximum of 10 minutes as they headed towards the two big mountains at the end of the day.
On the Port de Pailhères, a very difficult hors categorie climb, the race started to hot up and the searing pace set by Contador’s Astana team for so long on the approach to the mountain began to tell.
A lot of riders were dropped. Of the overall contenders, Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) was one of the first to be in trouble. Lance Armstrong, a husk of even last year’s defiant combatant, was also left behind.
Towards the top Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) began to struggle, although he got back in touch on the descent.
The lead group was whittled down until just Riblon, Moinard and Van de Walle remained. And behind them Carlos Sastre tried to go for a long one, attacking with his Cervélo team-mate Volodymyr Gustov but he was caught on the final climb.
The final climb to Ax-3-Domaines was gripping, if not decisive.
Riblon’s lead was shredded but he still had a minute in hand as he entered the final kilometre. Contador and Schleck looked capable of dropping everyone else but unable to maintain the pace for long.
And when they began to play about, Menchov seized his chance. Sanchez joined him and the pair worked hard, although their reward at the line was just 14 seconds.
Schleck maintains his 31-second lead over Contador, but Sanchez is now just 2-31 down overall. Robert Gesink and Levi Leipheimer traded places and Wiggins fell from 16th to 18th. He’s now not even the best-placed Team Sky rider. Thomas Löfkvist, the Swede brought to the Tour to help him, is two places higher.
Stage 14: Revel – Ax-3-Domaines
1. Christophe Riblon (Fra) AG2R 184.5km in 4-52-42
2. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 54sec
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi same time
4. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank at 1-08
5. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank
7. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana
8. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma all same time
9. Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre at 1-49
10. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervélo same time
36. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 4-59
1. Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank in 68-02-30
2. Alberto Contador (Spa) Astana at 31sec
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 2-31
4. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank at 2-44
5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma at 3-31
6. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank at 4-27
7. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Radioshack at 4-51
8. Joaquin Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha at 4-58
9. Luis Leon Sanchez (Spa) Caisse d’Epargne at 5-56
10. Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas at 6-52
11. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana at 7-04
12. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Liquigas at 7-11
13. Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin-Transitions at 7-17
14. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R at 8-03
15. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Cervélo at 8-15
16. Thomas Löfkvist (Swe) Team Sky at 9-46
18. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Team Sky at 11-30
19. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 12-39
38. Lance Armstrong (USA) Radioshack at 39-44
Points Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre
KOM Anthony Charteau (Fra) Bbox Bouygues Telecom
Youth Andy Schleck (Lux) Saxo Bank
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