Before the Tour de France, French hopes rested mainly on the shoulders of a young generation of emerging talent but after a barren two and a half weeks, it was the veteran Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale) who broke the home nation's duck with a gritty win atop Alpe d'Huez.
A stage winner at Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees three years ago to the day, Riblon had failed to record a victory since but the 32-year-old from the periphery of Paris could scarcely have chosen a grander platform upon which to end his own personal drought, as the Tour climbed Alpe d'Huez twice in the same day.
In the end, it was the knowledge garnered from the first ascent of the famous climb that helped Riblon time his effort to claim stage victory. Part of a break which also featured Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Riblon had seen the American attack the first time up the Alpe only to fade towards the summit and rejoin his pursuers.
As Riblon chipped away at a 40-second deficit to van Garderen with five kilometres still to go the second time around, his directeur sportif Julien Jurdie pulled up alongside him in the team car with some timely words of encouragement.
"I knew that I couldn't follow van Garderen when he attacked at the bottom of the climb," Riblon said. "But I'd limited my losses to him on the first time up the Alpe and that gave me some hope. With five kilometres to go, Julien Jurdie came up to me and told me to believe. He said van Garderen had faded the first time up the climb and would do it again."
Riblon edged his way up to van Garderen's wheel with a shade over three kilometres to go, and he immediately realised that his prey was no longer climbing with the same facility he had shown when he attacked 10 kilometres from the top. Between the two climbs of Alpe d'Huez, van Garderen had suffered a mechanical problem on the twisting descent of the Sarenne that necessitated a frantic solo pursuit, and Riblon felt he had paid for these efforts in the finale.
"Van Garderen was the strongest in the group so I was probably lucky that he had to make a big effort to get back up to us after his problem on the descent of the Sarenne," he said. "I think that really cost him in the last three kilometres."
Not that Riblon's approach to the final climb was without its problems. Shortly after van Garderen's chain problems, the Frenchman overshot a sharp left-hand bend on the descent of the Sarenne but managed to stay upright and avoid injury.
Riblon had suffered with injury concerns during the winter months, however, when the effects of a long-standing back complaint lingered on into the early part of the season. "I started to feel a bit better in March and the team put a programme together for me that helped me get back to my real level, so I have to thank them for believing in me," he said.
Ag2r-La Mondiale lost Jean-Christophe Péraud, its team leader and best-placed Frenchman on GC, to a broken collarbone during Wednesday's time trial, and in that sense, Riblon's victory was a timely one for his team.
It was opportune, too, given that a sizeable chunk of Ag2r-La Mondiale's column inches this season were generated by its decision to voluntarily suspend itself from the Critérium du Dauphiné in response to two positive tests from its riders in the past year. That measure was in tenor with the team's membership of Movement for Credible Cycling, and Riblon pointed out that he had undergone additional MPCC testing before Thursday's stage.
"This morning, I had an MPCC test and that's a good thing because we want to eradicate doping," Riblon said. "I was tested again just now as stage winner and they can come back and control me again tonight if they want."
The Sky team of race leader Chris Froome are not part of the MPCC but Riblon defended the maillot jaune, who has been the subject of considerable suspicion during this race, and indeed ever since his emergence as a Grand Tour contender at the 2011 Vuelta a España.
"I understand the process being carried out against the yellow jersey and the future will tell us everything, but he doesn't deserve this now," Riblon said. "I believe he works very hard, and it's up to us to learn from his methods rather than point the finger of suspicion."
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