Leading favourite Cadel Evans of Australia finally took possession of the Tour de France yellow jersey Monday after a thrilling end to the 10th stage.
Italian Leonardo Piepoli of the Saunier Duval team won the 156km ride from Pau to Hautacam in the Pyrenees, which saw the collapse of several big favourites including Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.
Evans, who rides for Silence-Lotto, now leads the race by just one second from Luxemburger Frank Schleck of the CSC-Saxo Bank team, with American Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Chipotle in third place at 38 seconds.
"I can't believe it now and I couldn't believe it on the podium," said Evans, who has arguably experienced the most dramatic 24 hours of his life. "Yesterday was by far my Tour low and today it's definitely my Tour high. Only 26 hours have passed and it's been a bit of a rollercoaster."
The Australian's performance on what was a thrilling day of bike racing in the Pyrenees mountains was impressive, especially as a crash at nearly 60km/h on Sunday threatened to end his bid to go better than last year's runner-up place.
On the ninth stage the 31-year-old former mountain biker bravely brushed off injuries to his shoulder, knee, elbow and thigh to finish still second overall at six seconds behind Kim Kirchen.
After being "patched up, but in pain" for the start of the 10th stage in Pau, Evans then overcame the loss of all of his teammates as CSC pushed the pace hard on the 17.7km climb over the summit of the Col du Tourmalet.
Left on his own during the 14.4km climb to the summit finish here, Evans looked in trouble when Frank Schleck, who began the day with a deficit of 1:50 to the Australian, attacked early on.
However, Evans worked himself back into contention and eventually finished the rest of the climb in the company of Russian Denis Menchov, Spaniard Carlos Sastre, American Christian Vande Velde and Italian climber Riccardo Riccò, all of whom crossed the line 2:17 behind Piepoli and 1:49 behind Schleck.
Although he cites Luxembourg national champion Schleck as a big threat, Evans admits he will now have to be vigilant of Menchov, who is fifth overall at 57 seconds.
"It's going to be difficult, we don't have the strongest team in the race but we just have to be satisfied with what we did today - and we'll give it (the rest of the race) some thought tomorrow," added Evans. "Frank Schleck is my closest rival so I think he'll be the biggest threat for now. But Menchov, for me, is one of the strongest in the top ten over a three-week race."
Schleck, whose attack on the Hautacam left younger brother Andy struggling and virtually out of contention at 8:34 behind Evans, said: "I'm disappointed not to take the yellow jersey, but the Tour is far from finished."
In fourth place overall is Austrian Bernard Kohl of Gersolsteiner, with Sastre - the CSC's official team leader - in fifth place at 1:28.
Kohl, 26, was ecstatic: "I'm in dreamland. I knew I had great form but I didn't think I would find myself up there."
Vande Velde was equally happy, having managed to stay with Evans' group to keep himself in contention.
The 32-year-old American - who spent six years riding with Lance Armstrong's US Postal team - believes the race is now wide open.
"To be third after the first ten days is great. From now on everyone's going to be playing off each other," he said. "This is not the top ten that I would have expected by this stage of the race. I didn't expect Valverde to be this far back. It's going to make for an interesting Tour."
Overnight leader Kim Kirchen fell to seventh at 1:56 behind Evans, who will now go into Tuesday's rest day glad of the chance to rest having injured his shoulder in a heavy crash on the ninth stage.
"I felt shocking at the start (of the stage), but as you do the body readapts. The team doctor patched me up," said Evans, who becomes the first Australian to wear the yellow jersey since sprinter Robbie McEwen in 2004.
For the first time since the great Phil Anderson, an Australian rider has a chance of winning the Tour de France.
Evans's team manager, Marc Sergeant, played down the suggestion that having the race lead would be an obstacle to their wish to have it in Paris on July 27.
"We've worked very hard, four years, to be here and now Cadel is on the podium in yellow. We have to enjoy this moment," Sergeant told AFP. "We have to put this in perspective. This morning no one was really sure how he was feeling. He was sore and stiff all over this morning, but he was good. He stayed with all the big favourites, Menchov, Sastre, the only one who was dangerous was Schleck - and okay, one second, on the good side."
Kirchen was not the only serious contender to suffer on the first stage of the race to feature climbs which are so difficult they are unclassified. He finished 4:19 behind Piepoli and over two minutes behind Evans's small group to lose the race lead he took after the sixth stage.
Valverde meanwhile had arguably his worst day on the Tour de France, the Caisse d'Epargne leader tumbling down the standings. He is now 4:41 behind Evans in 14th place after finishing 5:52 behind Piepoli.
Italian Damiano Cunego also showed the limits of his yellow jersey ambitions on a day which saw him drop well out of contention, the Lampre climber dropping to 16th overall at 5:37.
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008