Tour de France veteran Nicki Sørensen claimed a deserved maiden stage win on the race Thursday after an attacking performance which left five of his breakaway companions picking up the crumbs.
Italian Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R-La Mondiale retained the race leader's yellow jersey after 12 of the 21 stages, with a six- and eight-second lead respectively on race favourites Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong of Astana.
But ahead of likely hostilities in the yellow jersey battle on the hilly 13th stage Sørensen provided some welcome drama after it became clear the sprinters' teams were not interested in chasing down the break.
Having fought to join a first, six-man breakaway that was allowed to go by the peloton Sørensen then realised he would have little chance if he got to the finish with some of his companions.
That prompted him to attack twice in the closing stages, a decision that ultimately allowed him to come over the finish line savouring his triumph.
"The worst for me would be to come to the finish having used all my power, and being up against a guy like (Franco) Pellizotti," said Sørensen, who is competing in his eighth Tour. "If it came to sprint with the others I knew I wouldn't have had any power left."
With more than 211.5km of racing over slightly rolling terrain ahead, the attacks came thick and fast in a first hour in which the peloton covered 48km.
While that pace helped force three riders out of the race, none of the attacks were allowed to leave the peloton's clutches until the 64km mark, when a six-man group formed.
'El Diablo' rears his pointy head at the 20km-to-go point as the breakaway rolls on toward the finish
Sørensen then pulled away from the main bunch, and after he joined the group it was finally allowed to go on unhindered.
They soon had a two-minute lead on the peloton, and that continued to grow, fluctuating between four and five minutes.
With 23km to race Sørensen set out his stall by attacking the frontrunners and he was immediately countered by Frenchman Sylvain Calzati of Agritubel.
A desperate pursuit continued behind them, however, and with 10km to go their lead was down to only 13 seconds. Soon, the second part of Sørensen's plan was put into action.
Just as the five chasers were closing in, the 34-year-old Dane, known for years as a loyal 'domestique', attacked the fading Calzati, who was swallowed up, and went off on his own to finish 48 seconds ahead of the bunch.
"Personally I will carry this win with me forever," Sørensen said later when asked to describe what his feat means to him. "To have won a stage in the Tour, as you know, is an extremely big thing. Usually I don't get many chances to go out on my own, so that makes the victory and the satisfaction even better."
The peloton arrived nearly six minutes later, with some late drama provided by a fall involving Australian contender Cadel Evans and American Levi Leipheimer. Because it took place inside the last 3km, they were credited with the same time as the second main bunch.
"If I could wish someone in the team a victory it would be Nicki," said Saxo Bank teammate Andy Schleck, a yellow jersey contender who is 1:49 behind Nocentini. "He has always been there for me in the Classics and never went for his own goal. He has always helped me a lot both mentally and physcially, years before he helped me on the Tour. He had his chance here and took it - you could see what it meant to him when he won at the finish - he couldn't believe it.
"The stage was hard and very undulating, it was only a breakaway after about 80kms, but I knew he would do it, he is very strong," Schleck added.
After Saxo Bank lost road captain Kurt-Asle Arvesen on Tuesday when the Norwegian was forced out with a broken collarbone after crashing during the 10th stage, teammate Jens Voigt says Sørensen's win has lifted team spirits.
"It was a big blow to our team moral to lose a friend like Kurt in a terrible crash like that," said Voigt. "So this is the best possible answer, sure it wasn't a present, it was hard for everyone. There was no luck involved, but he managed to be up there and he did so well."
And Voigt admitted Dane Sørensen had succeeded where the German had faultered.
"Nicki and I were in the group responsible for catching breakaways, I have to admit, I was really tired and I couldn't go anymore, but Nicki said he could do it and he did it," said Voigt. "It was a perfect day at the office for him."
Coming next: stage13
The race resumes Friday and the AG2R team of Nocentini, who were put through their paces through the 12th stage, may well struggle to keep the Italian, an unlikely Tour winner, in the race's yellow jersey.
"It was no walk in the park today, the first two hours were incredibly fast," said Nocentini, who took the race lead last Friday at Arcalis in the Andorran Pyrenees. "The sprinters' teams didn't want to help out (in the chase) so we stopped chasing and gave the frontrunners the chance to go.
"I really hope the 13th stage is easier than today and the team recovers overnight," added Nocentini, who is hoping his bid to keep the lead could be helped by Contador and Armstrong's Astana team.
France's Minister for Health, Youth and Sports Roselyne Bachelot (L) poses with yellow jersey Rinaldo Nocentini in Tonnerre
"Tomorrow I think it's possible that Astana work with us, because it's quite a difficult stage."
© AFP 2009
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.
You can follow BikeRadar on Twitter at twitter.com/bikeradar.