L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France — After five grueling hours of riding, as he strained and sweated to victory in an eye-popping Tour de France stage with crowds that turned cycling’s most famous climb into a huge and raucous mountain party, Christophe Riblon didn’t want it to stop.
Winning a Tour stage is always special.
Becoming the first French stage winner at the 100th Tour was doubly special.
Doing all this in front of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans, several rows deep up 21 steep hairpin bends in the Alps, well, Riblon wanted the pleasure to last and last.
“It was as if the crowds were carrying me. Magical,” Riblon said. “The last kilometer (half-mile) wasn’t long enough. I so would have liked to have profited more from that moment with the crowds. It was incredible. I would have liked for it to go on for 10 kilometers (six miles) like that.”
In a Tour that has offered a kaleidoscope of racing drama and scenic beauty from its June 29 start point on the French island of Corsica, this Stage 18 was the one that most set hearts racing when organizers unveiled the race route last October.
When their bodies and minds are already sapped by more than two weeks of racing, it sent the riders not once but twice up the legendary climb to the ski station of L’Alpe d’Huez.
Between the two ascents, the route hared down a sinewy, narrow and risky descent with no safety barriers that some riders, including Tour champion-in-the-making Chris Froome, felt was dangerous.
The gamble could have backfired horribly had a rider plunged off a missed bend. But feared storms didn’t materialize, so the roads didn’t become overly treacherous.
The double ascent to L’Alpe d’Huez made the roadside hordes doubly frenzied. It was as though someone had scooped up an entire outdoor music festival — with multitudes of people, tents, barbecues, colors, smells, noise, outdoor toilets and all — and scattered them across the mountain. The riders cleaved through curtains of people screaming and running alongside them. A man waving a Japanese flag inadvertently caught it on the handlebar of Froome’s teammate Richie Porte, giving him a fright.
And the French got a perfect crescendo when Riblon spared them the indignity of a Tour without a stage win. The last time that happened was 1999. With just three stages left after Thursday to the finish in Paris, French chances were fast running out.
“A Frenchman winning on L’Alpe d’Huez is a beautiful recompense for France and for the Tour de France. We, the French, France, our team, didn’t deserve to come out of this Tour de France without a stage victory,” said Riblon.
Although not from the same country or team, Riblon used the limelight of victory as a soapbox to defend Froome against suspicions voiced in some quarters about the British rider’s performances.
Froome’s clear physical superiority has raised eyebrows. Because cycling was so let down by Lance Armstrong and his generation of dopers, some observers are finding it hard to believe that Froome could be riding clean — even though the sport’s anti-doping tests are more credible now than when Armstrong was winning and cheating.
Among the many banners that spectators hung on the switchbacks to L’Alpe d’Huez was one that read: “Froome dope.”
“I believe in cycling and I don’t think there are many cheats left,” Riblon said. “What I want most of all is to eradicate suspicion. Honestly, I don’t really understand why the yellow jersey (Froome) is being put on trial. He doesn’t deserve this. When harm is done to the yellow jersey, the whole of cycling is hurt.”
After his aggressive downhill from Sarenne, Contador labored on the last uphill. He finished 11th. Froome was seventh. His overall lead grew to 5 minutes, 11 seconds over Contador. Colombian Nairo Quintana moved up to third overall, 5:32 behind Froome, who is now just three days away from becoming the second successive British winner after 2012 champion Bradley Wiggins.