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TOUR DE FRANCE: It's still a two-man race

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

AX-3 DOMAINES, France -- With the Pyrenees all too ready to punish riders, overall leader Andy Schleck and defending champion Alberto Contador sized each other up, matching wits and pedal strokes in a high-altitude waiting game at the Tour de France.

Sunday's victory belonged to Christophe Riblon, a relatively unknown Frenchman who won a stage in cycling's showcase race for the first time.

Riblon, who rides for AG2R, was spurred by a French crowd that has little to celebrate at the Tour in recent years.

"Yesterday night if you'd asked me about today, I wouldn't have bet one euro on me," he said. "It's different now, of course. What I have done today is very important, for me and my team."

Schleck leads Contador, his closest rival, by 31 seconds. Both arrived with the same time, more than a minute behind Riblon. They lost a few seconds to the next closest contenders, Samuel Sanchez of Spain and Denis Menchov of Russia, but were not unhappy.

"I couldn't pass him; I had to stay in his wheel," said Schleck of Luxembourg. "I have often enough made the mistake where he attacked and dropped me because I passed him. I learn from my mistakes. But it will be a totally different scenario tomorrow."

Contador said sticking together benefited both riders. They could both make sure other contenders didn't get too far ahead. Sanchez is 2:31 back in third, with Menchov fourth at 2:44.

"It was a complicated day to get away from the other, so we agreed to catch the group," Contador said.

Schleck and the Spaniard have three more days in the mountains to try to get a jump on the other. That's particularly important for Schleck, who knows his slender lead is unlikely to be enough in the time trial Saturday.

The 29-year-old Riblon, who combines road cycling with a career on the track, was content to luxuriate in Sunday's result -- the best of his career.

"I've been a professional for 51/2 years and I've been waiting for this for 51/2 years," he said.

Lance Armstrong finished more than 15 minutes behind Riblon. The seven-time champion has acknowledged he has no chance of victory, but he hints at a possible glorious burst between now and Sunday's finish in Paris. Speaking after Sunday's stage, he said he would like a stage victory, but only if he earns it.

"Back in our heyday, we didn't give anything away, so I don't want anybody to say: 'Hey let's let the old man have one. That's not what this event is about," he said. "I got 25 of 'em -- I don't need anybody handing me one just 'cause they feel sorry for me."

Riblon broke away in a small group in the first 18 miles and held on as the rest of the group slowly lost ground and slipped back into the pack. By the time he reached the top of the major climb of the day, the Port de Pailheres, he was alone.

He held the lead down the long descent and then up the demanding climb to the finish at the ski resort of Ax-3 Domaines. He finished the 115-mile 14th stage from Revel in 4 hours, 52 minutes, 42 seconds. He was 54 seconds ahead of Menchov and Sanchez.

This was the fourth French win of the Tour de France this year -- after two by Sylvain Chavanel and one from Sandy Casar -- and it delighted the crowd.

"The most incredible thing was the public at the side of the road who told me it was good, I was going to win," Riblon said. "But I refused to believe I had won before the last kilometer."

He acknowledged that it was unusual for a track cyclist to find success as a climber.

"I don't yet consider myself a very brave or exceptional climber," he said. "But I am a good one."

Monday's 15th stage is the second in the Pyrenees. The 117-mile course from Pamiers to Bagneres-de-Luchon features the major climb of Port de Bales before descending to the finish.