BY JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Writer
L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France – After 5 grueling hours of riding, as he strained and sweated to victory in an eye-popping Tour de France stage with crowds that turned cycling’s most famous climb into a huge and raucous high-mountain party, Christophe Riblon didn’t want it to stop.
Winning a Tour stage is always special. Becoming the first French stage winner at the 100th Tour was doubly special.
Doing all this in front of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans, several rows deep up 21 steep hairpin bends in the Alps, well, Riblon wanted the pleasure to last and last.
“It was as if the crowds were carrying me. Magical,” Riblon said. “The last kilometer wasn’t long enough. I so would have liked to have profited more from that moment with the crowds. It was incredible. I would have liked for it to go on for 10 kilometers [6 miles] like that.”
In a Tour that has offered a kaleidoscope of racing drama and scenic beauty from its June 29 start point on the French island of Corsica, this Stage 18 was the one that most set hearts racing and tongues wagging when organizers unveiled the race route last October.
When their bodies and minds are already sapped by more than 2 weeks of racing, it sent the riders not once but twice up the legendary climb to the ski station of L’Alpe d’Huez.
Between the two ascents, the route hared down a sinewy, narrow and risky descent with no safety barriers that some riders, including Tour champion-in-the-making Chris Froome, felt was dangerous.
The gamble could have backfired horribly, had a rider plunged off a missed bend. But feared storms didn’t materialize, so the roads didn’t become overly treacherous.
The racing proved engrossing.
Watching the riders’ high-wire act on the Col de Sarenne descent, especially a heart-in-mouth moment when Froome’s rival Alberto Contador zipped past him as they sped downhill, was an adrenaline high.
The double ascent to L’Alpe d’Huez made the roadside hordes doubly frenzied. It was as though someone had scooped up an entire outdoor music festival – with hundreds of thousands of people, tents, barbecues, colors, smells, noise, outdoor toilets and all – and scattered them across the mountain.
The riders cleaved through curtains of people screaming and running alongside them. A man waving a Japanese flag inadvertently caught it on the handlebar of Froome’s teammate Richie Porte, giving him a fright.
And the French got a perfect crescendo when Riblon spared them the indignity of a Tour without a stage win. The last time that happened was 1999. With just three stages left after Thursday to the finish in Paris, French chances were fast running out.
“A Frenchman winning on L’Alpe d’Huez is a beautiful recompense for France and for the Tour de France. We, the French, France, our team, didn’t deserve to come out of this Tour de France without a stage victory,” said Riblon.
Riding to the line, he fished a dog tag engraved with the names of his wife and two daughters out of his jersey and kissed it.
Although not from the same country or team, Riblon used the limelight of victory as a soapbox to defend Froome against suspicions voiced in some quarters about the British rider’s performances.
Froome’s clear physical superiority has raised eyebrows. Because cycling was so let down by Lance Armstrong and his generation of dopers, some observers are finding it hard to believe that Froome could be riding clean – even though the sport’s anti-doping tests are more credible now than when Armstrong was winning and cheating.
Among the many banners that spectators hung on the switchbacks to L’Alpe d’Huez was one that read: “Froome dope”
“I believe in cycling and I don’t think there are many cheats left,” Riblon said. “What I want most of all is to eradicate suspicion. Honestly, I don’t really understand why the yellow jersey [Froome] is being put on trial ... He doesn’t deserve this. When harm is done to the yellow jersey, the whole of cycling is hurt.”
To combat suspicion, Froome’s team released his performance data from six races, including this Tour, to French sports newspaper L’Equipe.
The newspaper reported Thursday that it had an outside expert analyze the data – including how much power Froome generated and his climbing times on 18 ascents – and that he found “no anomalies.”
L’Equipe, owned by Tour organizers ASO, said Sky also told the newspaper that Froome has had 48 anti-doping tests this year, including 19 so far at the Tour before Thursday’ stage.
“The team owns all that data and the team made the decision to release that data,” said Froome. “But, yeah, I’m really happy to hear their findings and to hear their take on it and, basically, backing us up to say that these performances are very good, strong, clean sporting performances.”
“I know what I’m doing is right and I’m extremely proud of what I’ve done to get here. So no one can take that away from me,” he said.
Having barely put a foot wrong for more than 2 weeks, Froome ran short of energy on the second ascent to L’Alpe d’Huez, slowing suddenly as he sought assistance from his team.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” Froome said of the sugar-low.
Porte dropped back to their team car to fetch an energy bar, rode back and handed it over to Froome. That cost both of them a 20-second time penalty because food supplies weren’t allowed that late in the stage.
Still, Froome has plenty of time to spare, even more now than he started the day with.
After his aggressive downhill from Sarenne, Contador labored on the last uphill. He finished 11th. Froome was seventh. His overall lead grew to 5 minutes, 11 seconds over Contador.
Colombian Nairo Quintana moved up to third overall, 5:32 behind Froome, who is now just 3 days away from becoming the second successive British winner after 2012 champion Bradley Wiggins.