The latest bout in the battle for the Tour de France leader’s yellow jersey ended in a stalemate in the Pyrenees today.
As Christophe Riblon won the 184.5-kilometre 14th stage from Revel to Ax-3-Domaines, Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) successfully shadowed Alberto Contador (Astana) to finish on the same time.
Schleck retained the race leader’s maillot jaune and a 31-second advantage over Contador, who is seeking a third Tour title in four years in Paris next Sunday.
Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale), who was part of the day’s nine-man breakaway, soared ahead on the 15.5km hors categorie (beyond category) climb of Port de Pailheres and held on to his advantage on the 7.8km category one climb to Ax-3-Domaines to claim his first Tour stage victory.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank) was 54 seconds behind in second place, with Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) third.
Ireland's Nicolas Roche continued his strong performance in this year's Tour with a creditable 18th, two minutes and 54 seconds behind Riblon. The result keeps Roche in 14th position overall.
Samuel Sanchez is third overall, but only trimmed the leading duo’s advantage of over two minutes by 14 seconds as Schleck and Contador finished one minute eight seconds adrift of Riblon in a group of five riders.
Today’s stage was expected to be a showdown between Schleck and Contador, but the duo played a game of cat and mouse.
However, with tomorrow’s 187.5km 15th stage from Pamiers to Bagneres-de-Luchon featuring the Tour’s third hors categorie climb and two ascents of the fabled Col du Tourmalet (on Tuesday and Thursday) to come, there are sure to be more twists and turns in the yellow jersey duel.
Contador's Astana team led the pursuit of the day's nine-man breakaway, which included Team Sky's Geraint Thomas.
The breakaway, which began in the opening kilometre, had established a lead of around 10 minutes.
But as the second hors categorie ascent of the Tour began, the nine escapees were stretched and attacks off the front of the peloton saw many of them swallowed up.
Riblon led over the summit, with a lead of 37 seconds over Amael Moinard (Cofidis).
The 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre was among those in pursuit and impressed up the Port de Pailheres, but others struggled.
As well as seven-time winner Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack), world champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) also fell back, while David Millar (Team Garmin-Transitions) was back in the grupetto, the final group of stragglers.
Schleck – uncharacteristically for a man in the fabled maillot jaune – was seen back at his team car collecting provisions during the ascent.
Contador did not take advantage, but he was in position to do so – along with Astana team-mates Alexandre Vinokourov and Daniel Navarro – at the foot of the final climb.
Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas) could not cope with the frenetic pace on the incline from Ax-les-Thermes to the finish and were among those dropped.
But Riblon was still leading with 5km to go, holding an advantage of more than two minutes over Schleck’s yellow jersey group.
Contador then put in a burst with 5km to go, which Schleck shadowed.
The duo were dancing on their pedals, with Schleck on Contador’s shoulder, ignoring the events going on around them, including an attack by Menchov and Samuel Sanchez.
Spaniard Contador was almost stationary at one point, daring Luxembourg rider Schleck to go in front.
Schleck stayed calm, not rising to the intimidation, but finally went in front in the final 2km.
However, Contador marked the move as the duo cancelled each other out in yet another show of their superiority over the rest of the field.