Off Piste on the Alpe

Many question how a track rider can become a good mountain climber & take Alpine stages or do well in general classification, but this isn’t just confined to British riders, there was one notable performance in this years Tour by an ex track rider, I bring you Christophe Riblon.

The ‘Other’ Chris

This years stage to the Alpe d’Huez was a new experiment for the Tour, they chose to climb the famous mountain twice, utilising the questionable surface of Col de Saronne descent on the way. An AG2R rider, Christophe Riblon won on the day, after a long breakaway

In the year prior to the 2008 Olympics, there was a World Cup track meeting on the same velodrome to be used in Beijing, this event was attended by two British Tour de France notables, Mark Cavendish & Bradley Wiggins. They had gone all the way to China to test the track & gain qualification points for the Olympics, there were 3 British teams racing as a national team & two UCI registered teams, they wanted to do well. The T-Mobile riders (Rob Hayles & Geraint Thomas were riding in the British skinsuits) did a great ride, finishing 2nd, on the same lap to French duo Jerome Neuville & our climber, Christophe Riblon. Further down the placings, you can see the quality of the field, not what you’d call a soft race with riders like Loan Llaneras, Iljo Keisse, Alex Rasmussen, Michael Morkov, Greg Henderson & Hayden Roulston.

Riblon wasn’t a newcomer to the track, he’s performed at national & world-class level going back as far as 2002, where he was a silver medallist in the European Team Pursuit championships, silver in the 2003 French Points Race, silver in the 2008 World Points Race, silver in Worlds Madison in 2010, lots of silvers, a quality track rider. Meanwhile he was also doing very well in the mountains, with 2nd in GC at the 2005 Tour de l’Avenir, 2nd place in the mountains classification at the 2007 Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, a 6th place in the 2009 Tour stage to Andorra Arcalis, 13th in that same Tour’s stage to Mont Ventoux, just 3 places behind his old Madison rival Wiggins. He can also time trial, he took 8th place in a 2009 Vuelta a Espana time trial won by Cancellara, losing less than a minute over 30km.

Up to 2010 he was doing well, but we can probably say this was his breakthrough year, another year where he mixed track with road. His palmares show a huge amount of top ten places, culminating with a win on stage 14 of the Tour de France to Ax-les Thermes, beating Menchov, Sanchez & little Schlecker into the 2nd, 3rd & 4th placings. He also secured a top 10 placing overall in the Dauphine, which included a 7th place on the Alpe d’Huez stage, in fine company yet again. I have to admit, before compiling this blog, I had no idea of the quality of Riblon, he’s achieved steady improvement over a number of years & I expect to see him continue this over the next couple of years.

Track to Road

We often hear that nobody can quite understand how UK track riders are able to transfer their abilities to road racing, especially in grand tours. It seems that if you’re good at track, then you can’t be good at stage racing by the ‘experts’, but lets look at this example of Riblon. He has won a couple of World track silver medals, I’d suggest that if France had the same level of support, coaching & resources in their national track squad as the UK did, Riblon would have won a lot more medals, perhaps some gold ones. If you think that’s not the case, then there’s the strange ‘logic’ (among some) that a less talented track rider will be a more talented road racer, so if the Britis riders were finishing 4th or 5th in the Olympic track events, then they can climb better, I’d don’t understand that ‘logic’.

I’d also suggest that Riblon was just as talented a track rider as any endurance rider on the British squad, as far as I know Riblon has no questions asked about him. If we put across a scenario where Riblon was not French, but rode for Britain, would he have the same questions raised about his track abilities transferring to the road?

The Big Question

My real question is, have many nations missed spotting some road talents by chasing track medal success & not giving chances to their successful riders to transfer to road racing, is there a big international talent pool about to surface, particularly in France? Riblon could easily have been missed & stuck to track racing, his Madison partner Jerome Neuville also have been a great road rider on the largest stage, but he remained predominantly on the track. Maybe France needs to take a good look at their under 23 track riders, who knows what’s lurking in there ready to take on the Tour & revive French cycling.

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  1. To me, it doesn’t seem that surprising that these athletes are coming to prominence. To excel at endurance events on the track, you need to have been identified as having (or, by natural selection be shown to have) extremely good aerobic capacity, and the ability to put out high power at vO2 max.

    While mass start endurance racing on the track is tactical, there is much less scope for riders to sit easily in a large bunch for the whole race and still win. It happens occasionally in the scratch, but much less frequently than mass start road racing.

    If these exceptional athletes can be identified and brought on correctly, then so long as they attain the required body composition, it stands to reason that they will be toward the top of the pile when it comes to climbing.

    1. To clarify, I am not saying that you can’t win endurance track events like that. But at the top of the tree, you can’t win repeatedly with that being the only string to your bow. The other riders will race against you, forcing you to close gaps, etc, when there is no team to do the work of policing breaks for you.

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