The Pyrenees! These are the stages we've all been waiting for. Four amazing days in the high mountains, with the #1 podium spot still in hot contention. What could be better than that?
Today's stage first took us through the dark gorges of the Pyrenean foothills -- the subject of my Tour painting for the evening...
...and then we moved onto the day's two massive climbs: the above-the-tree-line Port de Pailheres, and the final climb up the Ax Trois Domaines. In a way, Stage 14 was all about twos: there were two mountains to climb, two Yellow Jersey contenders battling it out, and two dramatic stories created on those high roads.
Story #1: The Strange Dual Between Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador
Contador looked to be in good form on the steep slopes of today's mountains, which normally means he's virtually unbeatable. Bad news for Andy Schleck. So what did Schleck do? He just rattled Contador's nerves. Rather than attacking, Schleck kept his eyes glued on Contador and mirrored his every move. When Contador attacked, vroom! -- there was Andy Schleck instantly on his rear wheel, every single time ... following, never attacking.
But I think Contador wanted Schleck to attack; he wanted this battle to begin. So Contador literally dared Schleck to pull ahead of him, riding slower, slower, and even slower, to the point of a near standstill. Schleck just seemed to say fine, if you want to go slow, just watch how slow I can go too. And so we were treated to the rare sight of two of the top riders in the Tour de France nearly falling off their bicycles, trying as hard as they could not to attack!
Had Schleck attacked though, Contador could have latched onto Schleck's rear wheel, waited for him to wear out, and then pulled away. So it was brilliant riding by Andy Schleck. He can't afford to do this again -- Schleck still desperately needs to add minutes to his lead. But for today, the strategy worked beautifully.
Story #2: The Magnificent Ride of Christophe Riblon
French rider Christophe Riblon had no time for the mind games of Schleck and Contaodor. He had a stage to win! And wow, win it he did, leading the race for an astounding 160 kilometers.
There were no gifts helping Riblon along to victory. This was earned. Team Astana drove the peloton forward at a blistering pace. No matter, Riblon stayed away. 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre launched an attack, trying to bridge the gap to the lead. Again, Riblon stayed away. Even Dennis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez pulled up close to the lone leader toward the end ... but it had no effect on the determined Riblon. He made it all the way to the finish line, punching his hand into the air in celebration during the final kilometer.
So congratulations, Christophe! You did it! All of us were cheering right along with you.