Cadel Evans of the Silence-Lotto team kept his powder dry for the Tour de France's first big Pyrenean battle this weekend with a solid sixth stage performance which moved him up to second place on Thursday.
Team Columbia's Kim Kirchen created his own piece of Tour de France history by becoming the first Luxemburger in nearly 50 years to pull on the race's yellow jersey.
However Evans showed, for the second time this week, that his bid to become Australia's first Tour champion is coming together nicely.
On what was the first climbers' stage of the race, albeit in the 'medium mountains', Evans suffered his first little scare when he punctured. He and his Silence teammate Yaroslav Popovych promptly dealt with that mishap, and later, when it came to the crucial point of the day - the 11.5km climb to the 'summit' finish here - Evans was regular, rather than spectacular.
Italian Riccardo Riccò of Saunier Duval burst away from Alejandro Valverde in the final metres of the climb to claim his first stage win of the race. Evans finished just behind the Spaniard, and later admitted that not losing time to his big rival had been his priority.
"Overall I'm happy," said Evans after he emerged from a post-race anti-doping control. "I expected Valverde to have another acceleration, so I let him wait a bit to go and that was sort of a quick decision I had to make for a stage win, although my main concern was not to lose seconds, and, to gain a few seconds if I could, which I did."
The general classification, at this early stage in what could be an epic battle for the race's big prize, now has an historic slant.
The last rider from the landlocked Duchy of Luxembourg to wear the race's yellow jersey was legendary climber Charly Gaul, who first wore it in 1958 and last did so a year later.
Kirchen now has a six-second lead on Evans with overnight leader Stefan Schumacher in third place at 16 seconds. Valverde, who after losing 1:07 to the Aussie in the fourth stage time trial, failed to take any time back from Evans on Thursday.
Valverde sits in eighth place at 1:12 behind Kirchen and 1:06 behind Evans.
Evans could even afford a smile after learning he had taken another few seconds off Russian rival Denis Menchov and Spaniard Carlos Sastre, who both finished the stage six seconds behind the Australian and now sit seventh and 12th overall behind him at 1:03 and 1:34 respectively behind Kirchen.
"Every second counts, especially to a guy who lost the Tour last year by 23 seconds," said Evans.
The 31-year-old gave a quick pat on the back to his team, although he knows the hard part of the Tour - the Pyrenees and Alps - will provide the biggest test of their ambition.
"The guys are riding far and beyond what I hoped they could do, and now I just hope they can keep it up for three weeks," he said. "We're right there, but we're saving our legs for the stages to come. The important thing is to have the yellow (jersey) in Paris, so not having it at this stage is not important."
Valverde, who wore the yellow jersey at the start of the race following his stage one victory, was also quick to applaud his team after their hard work in forcing the pace on the final climb.
"I would have liked to win the stage to thank my team for all the hard work they did," said the Spaniard, who seemed totally recovered from his crash on Wednesday.
"But I really have to be satisfied, especially as I hardly slept a wink last night because of the scrapes all down the right side of my body. When Riccò attacked, he took a lead that I just couldn't close."
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008