Italian Rinaldo Nocentini retained the Tour de France yellow jersey on Sunday as Frenchman Pierrick Fedrigo won the race's ninth stage held over 160.5km from Saint Gaudens to here.
Fedrigo, who rides for the Bbox-Bouygues team, handed the hosts their third stage victory from this year's race after outsprinting breakaway companion Franco Pellizotti at the finish line.
It was Fedrigo's second stage win on the race after his victory at Gap in 2006, and the hosts' third after teammate Thomas Voeckler's win on stage five and Agritubel's Brice Feillu win on the mountainous seventh stage.
Fedrigo admitted he had been wise enough to study the technical finish to the stage.
"Thankfully I had a look at the stage finish so I knew there was a bend not far from the finish. Once he attacked I made sure I jumped on his wheel, especially as there was a bit of a headwind," said Fedrigo.
Fedrigo and Pellizotti sprint for the line
The main peloton containing all the race favourites came over the finish line 34secs later having failed to close the gap to the leading pair on the 70.1km descent leading from the summit of the Col du Tourmalet to Tarbes.
On the third and final day in the Pyrenees and before Monday's rest day, a truce appeared to replace the yellow jersey battle allowing Nocentini to keep his 6 seconds lead on Spain's 2007 champion Alberto Contador.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, Contador's Astana teammate, is still in third place overall at 8 seconds in arrears.
"It was pretty controlled, although it's never easy, it's long, it was very hot," said Armstrong when asked to compare this year's climb of the Tourmalet, the 76th in 96 editions, to previous attempts.
"The tempo was pretty regular as no one really attacked, we just kind of rode our race. I have felt a lot more pain on the Tourmalet, 2003 was painful."
The summit of the Col d'Aspin
Liquigas all-rounder Pellizotti had prompted their initial break when an acceleration by the Italian around 10km from the summit of the Tourmalet shook off Jens Voigt of Saxo Bank.
From then on Fedrigo and Pellizotti collaborated to distance the main group, which came over the summit with a deficit of 5min 10sec.
"I knew that if we went over the summit (of the Col du Tourmalet) with only four or five minutes we'd find it hard to go all the way," said Fedrigo. "The whole descent there were adverse wind conditions so we really had to go for it and work together to keep our lead."
Armstrong's Astana team then moved to the front early on the descent, with Nocentini sticking on the American's wheel, before a more organised chase was established on the declining run in to the finish. Leading the chase was the Caisse d'Epargne team of Luis Leon Sanchez and the Columbia team of Mark Cavendish, but their efforts only succeeded in reeling in some earlier escapees.
Nocentini and his AG2R team had suffered trying to defend his yellow jersey on Saturday, but a day later they were given some respite.
"It was an easier day than yesterday," said the Italian, who is not considered a contender for overall victory. "The team still did a great job to keep me in the lead and for that I have to say thanks."
In the closing kilometres there was a drama for Saxo Bank's main yellow jersey contender Andy Schleck when he suffered a puncture.
But a quick change of wheel and the Luxembourger, waited on by two teammates, charged back to the main chasing bunch to avoid losing time. Schleck, expected to move up a gear in the Alps next week, is still ninth overall at 1:49.
Pellizotti meanwhile came away with the largely symbolic prize for the stage's most combative rider. And the Italian admitted that on the day he was beat by the better sprinter.
"We worked well together on the climb and on the descent to keep our advantage on the bunch," said Pellizotti. "Fedrigo is a stronger sprinter than me - all I could do was give it everything I had."
© AFP 2009
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