The Tour’s first day in the Pyrenees delivered the expected fireworks on Sunday. Frenchman Christophe Riblon, of French team AG2R, gave the host country something to celebrate as the last survivor of the day's main breakaway soloed to the biggest victory of his life. He won by 54 seconds over Samuel Sanchez and Denis Menchov, currently third and fourth in the overall standings, with Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador finishing together a further 14 seconds back.
The result means Schleck holds onto his lead in the overall standings and maintains his 31-second advantage over Contador. The two were in a high-powered group that absolutely destroyed the field on the final climb of the day and caused a substantial shakeup to the rest of the standings. (Full results.)
What do I mean by high powered? With about three miles to go, the group contained yellow-jersey wearer Schleck, who was second in last year’s Tour; Contador, with four grand-tour wins to his name (two Tours, one Giro, and one Vuelta); Denis Menchov, a winner of both the Giro and the Vuelta; 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre; and 2008 Olympic road-race gold medalist Samuel Sanchez. Schleck, Contador, Sanchez, and Menchov currently occupy the top four places in the overall classification.
The group formed as Contador’s Astana teammates drove the pace on the final climb of the 115-mile route, which included an ascent of the beyond-category Port de Pailhères and finished at the summit of the Category 1 Ax-3-Domains. As they upped the speed, the pack began shedding riders who couldn’t match the pace, including big names like Lance Armstrong, Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins, and 2010 Giro winner Ivan Basso. Armstrong finished the day in 72nd place, more than 15 minutes behind the stage winner.
RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer, fighting to maintain his top-10 position in the overall standings was one of the last to lose contact with the group, as he fell back with three miles to go. He limited his losses, however, and rolled across the line in 11th place, just 45 seconds behind Schleck and Contador, though he dropped from sixth to seventh in the standings.
Schleck’s strategy was clear today. He spent basically the entirety of the last climb on Contador’s wheel. He responded every time his Spanish rival attacked but refused to put in any attacks of his own. The approach kept him in yellow. But with a 32-mile time trial waiting on the Tour’s penultimate day, he’ll need to take much more time out of Contador in the remaining mountain stages.
Contador is one of the top time trialists in the world and will have no problem making up 31 seconds on Schleck, who has historically struggled in races against the clock. What’s more, the gamesmanship between the two at the end of the stage allowed Menchov and Sanchez, both strong time trialists in their own right, to gain time on them. Sanchez is now just 2:31 off Schleck’s lead, with Menchov a close fourth at 2:44. Such gaps can be erased in long TT’s like the one the rider’s will face on Saturday.