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 high-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.”
In a Tour that has offered a kaleidoscope of racing drama and scenic beauty from its June 29 start point on Corsica, this Stage 18 was the one that most set hearts racing and tongues wagging 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 that some riders, including Tour champion-in-the-making Chris Froome, felt was dangerous.
Watching the riders’ high-wire act on the Col de Sarenne descent, especially a heart-in-mouth moment when Froome’s rival Alberto Contador zipped past him, was an adrenaline high.
The double ascent to L’Alpe d’Huez made the roadside hordes doubly frenzied. The riders cleaved through curtains of people. A man waving a Japanese flag inadvertently caught it on the handlebar of Froome’s teammate, Richie Porte.
And the French got a perfect crescendo when Riblon spared them the indignity of a Tour without a stage win. 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,” said Riblon.
Riblon also used the limelight of victory as a soapbox to defend Froome against suspicions voiced in some quarters about the British rider’s performances.
Among the banners that spectators hung on the switchbacks to L’Alpe d’Huez was one that read: “Froome dope.”
“Honestly, I don’t really understand why the yellow jersey (Froome) is being put on trial,” Riblon said. “He doesn’t deserve this. When harm is done to the yellow jersey, the whole of cycling is hurt.”
To combat suspicion, Froome’s team released his performance data from six races, including this Tour, to French sports newspaper L’Equipe. The newspaper reported Thursday that an outside expert found “no anomalies.”
Froome’s overall lead grew to 5 minutes, 11 seconds over Contador and he’s just three days away from becoming the second successive British winner after the 2012 champion, Bradley Wiggins.