Riblon wins Pyrenees stage, Hesjedal 12th

Christophe Riblon of France won the first stage of the Tour de France into the Pyrenees, while Andy Schleck held on to his yellow jersey as overall leader as the race finished the brutal climb into the ski resort Ax-3 Domaines on Sunday.

Canadian in striking distance of top-10 overall finish with six stages to go

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 on the brutal climb into Ax-3 Domaines 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 had 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."

Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria fought into 12th on the day and still sits 13th overall in the field of 175 competitors. The Canadian is 24 seconds back of 10th place Ivan Basso of Italy with six stages to go until the ride into Paris on July 20.

Toronto's Michael Barry, working as a domestique, or team support rider, is 99th.

Leaders stay with each other

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 he and Schleck because 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.  

Riblon has been waiting a while 

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 5½ years and I've been waiting for this for 5½ 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 30 kilometres 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 184.5-kilometre 14th stage from Revel in four 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 kilometre."

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 188-kilometre course from Pamiers to Bagneres-de-Luchon features the major climb of Port de Bales before descending to the finish.