Tour de France leader Chris Froome had a difficult day on the race’s double ascent of cycling’s most mythical climb, the Alpe D’Huez, but managed nonetheless to increase his overall lead over Spain’s Alberto Contador, whilst France celebrated - at long last - their first victory in the 2013 race thanks to Christophe Riblon.
With around five kilometres to go on the second and final ascent of Alpe d’Huez in a group of four riders, Froome flung his right arm in the air as he experienced a sudden loss of energy - technically, known as hypogleucemia or more commonly described in cycling argot as ‘the bonk’ - and signalled to the team that he was in dire need of an energy gel.
Team-mate Richie Porte, who was just behind, instantly handed one over, and Froome, swaying and barely able to follow Porte’s wheel, followed the Australian - constantly looking back to see Froome had not faded completely - all the way to the finish line.
Seventh at the finish three minutes and 18 seconds down on Riblon, Froome admitted afterwards “it had not been easy, I was really low on sugar levels. Going up Alpe D’Huez twice is hard.”
“I asked Richie to get me an energy gel from the team car” - which incurred the Briton and Porte a 20 second time fine, as taking race provisions from following vehicles in the last 20 kilometres of a stage is prohibited - “and he gave me that to get me through the stage.” As for the fine, Froome said, “technically it was Richie that got the gel, but the rules are the rules.”
But even if Colombian climber Nairo Quintana was the main beneficiary from Froome’s moment of weakness as he charged away and gained 66 seconds on the Briton, crucially by that point of the Alpe d’Huez, Froome had already dropped second-placed Alberto Contador, who experienced an even rougher day than the Sky rider.
Overall, Froome now leads by over five minutes on Contador, with Quintana ousting the Spaniard’s Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Roman Kreuziger from the provisional third place overall - a remarkable performance. Riding his first ever Tour de France and on the attack since the first Pyrenean stage, Quintana’s high mountains performance had already been exceptional - but taking a third place overall at 23 in Paris would make the Movistar rider a serious threat for Froome and Sky in the future.
On a stage where more than a million fans were estimated to have lined the ascent of the Alpe d’Huez, Froome, meanwhile, was more than content that he had managed both to limit the damage on Quintana and also distanced Contador yet further.
“It was one of the biggest stages of the Tour and I’m happy both to have got through it and to have increased my overall advantage,” Froome said.
“It wasn’t good to have suffered like that, but I wasn’t going to lose the Tour, my biggest overall rivals were still behind me on the climb.”
Meanwhile with just four stages left, nerves were getting increasingly jarred in France over the lack of a single win in the Tour, which explained why when local rider Riblon overtook stage leader Tejay Van Garderen with two kilometres to go, French television commentators - and presumably a large part of the the country too - went almost delirious with joy.
A stage winner three years ago in the Pyrenees, Riblon was dropped by the American at the foot of the 13. 8 kilometre climb. But the former track rider said the encouragement from his sports director had enabled him to return into the game and then solo to the finish, kissing a medallion and going through a prolonged series of victory salutes.
“I could see that Van Garderen was clearly the strongest in our early break but after he went away I kept going at my own pace. Initially I was fighting for second place, but my sports director kept on telling me that I could catch him again, and with three kilometres to go, I saw him in the distance, I could see he was struggling and I thought I get past him again.”
Riblon used his press conference to issue an impassioned defence of cycling’s anti-doping struggle and also to insist that he believed in Chris Froome as a clean rider - an issue which once again raised its head this morning after Sky released Froome’s physiological data from his climbs in the last 18 years to an independent expert with French newspaper L’Equipe.
The expert, Fred Grappe, said that Froome’s dossier indicated nothing suspicious. “I’m happy to hear those findings, and that their [the expert’s] take on it is that these are strong, clean sporting performances, and it indicates that we are doing things as they should be done,” Froome commented. Meanwhile, a second straight British victory in the Tour now seems closer than ever.