Long before Astana’s Alberto Contador reached Ax-3 Domaines, less than 15 miles from the Spanish border, thousands of the defending champion’s compatriots had arrived in hopes of watching him ride into yellow.
Instead, they saw Mr. Contador and race leader Andy Schleck of Team Saxo Bank fight a tactical battle, while France’s Christophe Riblon soloed to the Tour de France Stage 14 victory and more general classification riders, like RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer, fell out of contention.
Contador, in second place just 31 seconds behind Mr. Schleck, was responsible for much of the cat-and-mouse game the two played during the 115-mile stage.
But the 25-year old Schleck didn’t give in; though he is leading the Tour for the first time, he doesn’t lack racing savvy.
“On the second to last climb, his whole team surrounded him and I could see they wanted to give the impression that he wasn’t feeling good today,” said Schleck in a post-race press conference. “But I knew it wasn’t like that — they wanted me to attack.”
Contador’s more conspicuous challenges came on the ascent to the Pyrénéan ski area of Ax-3 Domaines, where he tried rapid acceleration and sudden braking in an attempt to drop the Luxembourger.
Schleck responded each time, though he never mounted an attack himself.
Though neither picked up time on each other, their tête-à-tête had an unexpected, perhaps unwelcome, result.
As the two dueled in the final kilometers, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, the race’s third and fourth-placed riders, rode ahead and picked up 14 valuable seconds on the leaders. Sanchez is currently two minutes behind Contador.
Fourth stage victory for the French
Despite not having a contender for the general classification, this is turning out to be one of the most successful Tours for French riders in more than a decade.
Team Ag2r’s Christophe Riblon’s win is the fourth stage win by a Frenchmen in this Tour, the most since 1997, when six stages were won by the hosts.
“I don’t know why I can say,” a breathless Riblon told French television after the stage. “It’s truly incredible.”
A redemptive ride
Many former general classification hopefuls continued to fade today. Lance Armstrong lost 15 minutes and 14 seconds, as did HTC-Columbia’s Michael Rogers, the winner of this year’s Tour of California.
Hitting the climb to Ax-3 Domaines ahead of the yellow jersey, Sastre — who won the 2003 stage finish here — charged ahead before being caught and left behind with just less than 1.9 miles remaining.
For Sastre, who crashed in this year’s Giro D’Italia, a three-week race in May, and in Stage 6 of this Tour de France, just making a move was a little slice of redemption.
“Today was a special day,” he said, sitting in a folding chair after the race. “Maybe I’m not going to win the Tour de France, but I’m here to fight.”
Armstrong, in a rare appearance on French television after the race, echoed his fellow former champion.
Asked if he was thinking about calling it quits, 38 minutes and 44 seconds off the pace set by Shleck, Armstrong said: “I’ve never been a quitter and I won’t do that now.”