Tour de France: Schleck left with work to do after cat-and-mouse act with Contador

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The Independent Online

The stalemate between favourites Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador intensified to almost ridiculous levels yesterday in the Tour's first major Pyrenean stage, with the two riders so obsessed with shadowing one another they even briefly dropped back from the group of overall contenders.

The same stage saw Bradley Wiggins' general classification bid receive its third consecutive setback in the mountains, losing four minutes on the favourites and sliding to 18th overall. Already in difficulty on the second-last climb, the mammoth Pailheres, Wiggins definitively cracked on the ascent to the Ax 3 Domaines ski station.

The latest defeat sees the Briton fall behind a Sky team-mate – Thomas Lovkvist in 16th, despite working for the Londoner on the climbs. Wiggins was in a grim mood afterwards, admitting that "when you don't have it, you don't have it."

"To be honest, I just don't have the form," he said. "I just feel consistently mediocre, not brilliant, not terrible, just mediocre, on a kind of plateau."

Wiggins said that, for reasons that were hard to explain after a promising build-up in the Tour of Italy, he had failed to "get it right."

"It's been a huge learning curve and this is the first year I've tackled the race full on," he said. "Last year was a bit of a fluke, it's easy to think you can improve."

If the first round of Schleck and Contador's much-anticipated Pyrenean duel was a dud with a capital D and Wiggins' hopes of even a top ten place are rapidly fading, only the French were really satisfied as Parisian Christophe Riblon notched a classy lone win.

Day-long breaks rarely work in modern-day cycling, but the 29-year-old AgR's gamble in forming part of a nine-rider move paid off big time as he shed his breakaway companions on the Pailheres.

Less than three minutes ahead of the main favourites at the foot of the final climb, Riblon – best known as a track rider, a silver medallist in the Madison World Championships this spring – should have been caught.

But instead, the Frenchman was able to go through a series of lengthy victory salutes, kissing an amulet and waving at the crowds, before riding on to claim by far the biggest win of his career.

However, as double Tour winner Laurent Fignon shrewdly pointed out, Riblon's success was also partly due to an excessively prolonged stalemate between the favourites.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in the two-wheeled duel between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, who did almost everything bar stopping as the favourites charged uphill.

Dropping back from the pack of contenders twice was just one almost unprecedented manoeuvre for the two strongest riders in the Tour, and third- and fourth-placed Denis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez were quick to take advantage.

Finally, the penny dropped with Contador and Schleck that their overriding mutual obsession might just cost them the race, normal business, of sorts, resumed and the two came across the line in a half-dozen strong group, 14 seconds behind Menchov.

"It was a psychological war," Contador insisted, "we're both at more or less the same level physically.

"In any case, this last climb wasn't hard enough to really create any big time gaps."

Schleck was equally phlegmatic about his and Contador's two-wheeled brinkmanship, arguing that he had been scared that the Spaniard would be able to stage a counter-attack if he let him out of his sight.

"I didn't want him suddenly charging away up the road after pretending to drop behind," he said.

Schleck, though, also admitted that he will have to drop former double winner Contador if he wants to make it to Paris in yellow.

"I'll need 90 seconds advantage at least going into the final time trial if I want to be sure of beating him," the Luxembourg rider said, "and I've got two or three opportunities left to take time in the Pyrenees."

One excelle nt chance for Schleck was lost yesterday, though, and the only real beneficiaries were the French, now with four stage wins to their name this Tour – one more than last year with a week still left to go.