5 things to know about Tour de France
By JAMEY KEATEN
L'ALPE D'HUEZ, France (AP) -- Five things to know as the Tour de France enters its 19th Stage on Friday:
1. FRANCE WINS STAGE! -- France finally got a winner. It took 18 stages and came against the backdrop of rising rumblings that no French rider might land a stage win in the Tour's 100th edition. Then Christophe Riblon came through, speeding past American rider Tejay van Garderen in the last mile to win Stage 18 up to L'Alpe d'Huez ski station. The French have been facing a series of setbacks this year. Promising young climbing specialist Thibaut Pinot dropped out; Jean-Christophe Peraud crashed out while ninth overall. Chris Froome and his Sky team, including key climbing cohort Richie Porte of Australia, repelled a string of attacks to keep the Briton in the yellow jersey. His biggest rivals are running out of options to wrest it ahead of the finish to the three-week race on Sunday in Paris.
2. MOUNTAIN MAYHEM -- Campers by the hundreds. Beer flowing like it came out of an Alpine stream. Flags seemingly from every nation of the United Nations. The ride Wednesday to the famed L'Alpe d'Huez -- arguably cycling's greatest mountain mecca -- was absolutely teeming with fans, by the hundreds of thousands. This is about as close as it gets to a European version of "tailgating" in American football -- where fans fire up grills for barbecues from the backs of their vehicles before a game. Some camped out for days. Many dressed for the craziness. Fans included Papa Smurf, a person in a lion suit strumming on an inflatable guitar, pastel-colored body suits and others sporting rather lewd garb. Many of the 21 switchbacks up to L'Alpe d'Huez seemed reserved for fans by nation: Norwegian, Irish, British, and especially the renowned "Dutch corner" -- a sea of orange-colored fans dancing as music blared. The riders mostly say they enjoy such support -- loud cheers were heard almost all the way up the 8-mile climb -- but several riders had to swat back fans who got too close and ran beside them as they agonized.
3. BREAKING THE CADEL'S BACK -- Cadel Evans hasn't been up to par at this Tour. The 36-year-old Australian who won the Tour two years ago admits that he and his BMC team overestimated his ability to recover from the Giro d'Italia in May, where he finished third. "The Giro took a lot more out of me than I first thought," Evans said after finishing 167th in Wednesday's time trial in Stage 17. He was 8 minutes, 4 seconds behind stage winner and overall leader Chris Froome. Riding both "was something that we tried, knowing there was a certain element of risk to ride in the Giro and the Tour... in the Tour it didn't work." Evans lost over 20 minutes to the top race leaders in Thursday's 18th stage, featuring a double-dose of the widely-dreaded L'Alpe d'Huez -- and fell to 29th place, 46:16 back. As the Tour began, Evans and BMC hoped that he might reach the podium -- an aim out of reach now. "A reasonable Giro and a very good Tour was the goal," he said. "Nothing I can do about that now!"
4. RIIS' NEGATIVE -- Bjarne Riis says cycling has to live with the skepticism of many fans about rider performances in the wake of an array of doping scandals to rock the sport. Riis is manager of the Saxo Bank team of Alberto Contador, a two-time Tour winner returning to the race this year after serving a ban linked to a positive doping test. More than a decade after the fact, Riis admitted to using the blood booster EPO -- long a designer drug of cycling cheats -- on way to winning the 1996 Tour. Today, other team managers, such as Team Sky's Dave Brailsford, are trying to show their racers aren't doped, to help overcome fans' doubts. Brailsford has proposed providing all his riders' blood, power and performance data to the World Anti-Doping Agency. Riis' response to that idea? "Dunno ... It's not in our rights to do that," he said, "it is personal data." Riis also said real scientific experts -- not armchair specialists who may chime in from the Internet -- need to vet such data. Asked what his proposals might be to help end fan skepticism built up over many years of doping scandals, he said: "We have to live with that," before telling reporters: "You find a solution and then we'll look at it."
5. ADDITIONAL ALPINE AGONY -- The pack may think a double-billing of L'Alpe d'Huez ride Thursday was tough, but more aching in the Alps awaits. The trek Friday from the mountain-biking hub of Bourg d'Oisans to Le Grand-Bornand is home to more than 400 chalets, including one dating to the 17th century, over a whopping 127 miles. The 19th stage features five ascents -- two of them among the hardest in cycling. The Col de Glandon and the Col de Madeleine -- and a total of 41 miles of climbing. "Tomorrow's possibly the toughest day of the Tour de France. It's really going to be a hard day," Froome said.
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