Little-known Italian Rinaldo Nocentini battled to retain the Tour de France yellow jersey after the eighth stage on Saturday won by Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez.
Paris-Nice champion Sanchez proved the wiliest from a four-man group which fought almost all the way to the finish after crossing over the summit of the third and last climb, the Col d’Agnes, with a healthy lead.
Nocentini will go into the third and final day of racing in the Pyrenees on Sunday with a six-second lead on pre-race favourite Alberto Contador of Astana, the 2007 champion.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, also of Astana, is third overall at 08sec while two of their main rivals, Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans, are 1min 49sec and 3:07 behind respectively.
Nocentini took the yellow jersey by surprise after a breakaway on the first day in the Pyrenees on Friday.
But the race leader came close to losing it when he began trailing on the tricky 12.4km climb to the Col d’Agnes, where race contender Andy Schleck of Saxo Bank put in two quick accelerations.
“I began to struggle on the last climb but that’s normal a day after you’ve been in a 200km breakaway,” said Nocentini, the first Italian to wear the yellow jersey since Alberto Elli in 2000.
“It’s just not possible for me to follow a guy like Andy Schleck. It was only thanks to my team, and Stephane Goubert in particular, that I was able to get back to that group after he dragged me back up.
“He kept me in the yellow jersey.”
Evans, Australia’s two-time runner-up, has nothing to lose and so provided some early drama by joining a small group of breakaway riders.
However the Silence team leader’s bid to close the gap to Contador and Armstrong came undone by his “immature” breakaway companions, and a resolute Astana team.
Evans was eventually reeled in by the peloton after the day’s first climb around 65km into the stage.
He later complained: You’d think anyone in the Tour de France would let me go in a breakaway, and then when they get into a break with me – like a couple of members of them did – they carry on like three-year-olds with their tantrums, saying ‘get out of the group, they’re gonna chase us’.
“I saw an opportunity there on the climb and I’ve got nothing to lose so I thought I’d try something.
“As it turned out, a big waste of energy. Hopefully I will recover that by tomorrow.”
On the Col d’Agnes it was Schleck’s turn to test the resolve of Astana.
The Luxemburger put in two impressive accelerations but each time Astana, notably Gemany’s Andreas Kloden, were quick to react and rein him in.
With a long ride to Saint-Girons after the summit, that spelled the end of opportunities for the yellow jersey contenders.
However Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis said they will fight on.
“It’s only the second day in the mountains. The race is far from over for us,” he said.
Up ahead meanwhile Sanchez, Frenchman Sandy Casar, Spaniard Mikel Astarloza and Russian Vladimir Efimkin were virtually guaranteed the chance to battle for the stage win.
Efimkin launched an attack 4km from the finish line, and the Russian was only reeled in on the home straight after Sanchez counter-attacked a sprint by Francaise des Jeux rider Casar.
While Sanchez picked up his second stage win of the race, after his maiden win last year, the unlucky Casar finished second on a stage for the fifth time since 2005.
“I knew that Efimkin was going to have no choice but to attack. He’s one of my former teammates,” said Sanchez, whose win help makes up for teammate Oscar Pereiro’s abandon earlier in the stage.
“I tried to get Astarloza and Casar to take relays. All I needed was a bit of luck, but I knew that I had the speed to beat them.”