Bradley Wiggins fought hard to spend a second day in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France after a gruelling eighth stage.
The Brit held firm and made his way into an elite group of favourites which formed over the top of the final first-category Col de Croix, chasing down rival Cadel Evans (BMC) in the final metres to maintain his 10-second lead. Wiggins was followed home by team-mate Chris Froome after a frenetic finish.
Team Sky were put under immense pressure during the stage but fought hard as strong contenders looked to power clear in the early going, with a breakaway always looking like a good bet to take victory.
That proved to be the case as up ahead Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) held on after a superb performance in the mountains to claim the stage win by 26 seconds, roared on by team boss Marc Madiot in his team car.
Evans led a group of just 10 riders home at the line, holding off Tony Gallopin (RadioShack-Nissan) after the elite faction had formed over the top of the final ascent. Wiggins was the next man home while Froome's performance saw him vault up to sixth overall on the GC.
Liquigas-Cannondale and then Lotto-Belisol pushed the pace late on after an energy-sapping stage which saw the peloton tackle no less than seven categorised climbs. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) looked to put Wiggins under pressure on the descent but was reeled back on the run into Porrentruy.
Another day in yellow
After the stage Wiggins summed up a tough day which will see him head into Monday's 41.5km time trial in yellow.
He said: "That stage was a lot harder than I expected it to be. I was surprised again at the size of the group going over that last climb but I was there again with Froomey so it was a good day again for the team. The boys were incredible again today and really marshalled the race. They set us up to be able to go with the others on that last climb.
"Early on we had to wait to let the right break go, and that took a long time and a lot of work. We were racing from the off and that didn’t stop for two hours really. The peloton was decimated and it was a tough day for a lot of people.
"We’re still in a fantastic position after this first week and that’s two tough days down now. We’ve got a time trial ahead of us now and then a rest day."
Right behind Wiggins, Froome was happy to emerge from a tough day, despite being forced to concede the polka dot jersey.
"We’re one stage closer to Paris now and that’s definitely a relief," he admitted. "The polka dot jersey was never an objective for me coming into the Tour and it was a bonus to wear it today. I’m really happy. A lot of riders were trying to put us under pressure but Bradley’s in super form and we’ve all worked really, really hard for this so we’re not going to let the race go away from us so easily.
"Time trials are one of the hardest disciplines in cycling – you’ve got to turn yourself inside out to get the best time possible. They are something Bradley excels in so hopefully it should be a good day for us. I’ll give it my best shot and see where I end up at the end of the day."
At just 157.5km the stage always looked likely to play into the hands of a breakaway and a huge fight ensued in the opening third of the stage to try and get away. With almost every team looking to be represented, the peloton was lined out as efforts were repeatedly chased down, many containing big names.
With 98km to go Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) became the biggest casualty of the day, the reigning Olympic champion and fifth place finisher last year hit the ground hard, breaking his left collarbone to force the Spaniard out of the race.
21 riders finally made it stick, moving clear with Team Sky happy to settle into a more manageable rhythm after being put under pressure to shut down gaps in the early going, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Christian Knees setting an assured tempo on the front with Michael Rogers also stepping in early in the chase.
Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) and Jeremy Roy (FDJ-BigMat) proved the most persistent and the duo linked up to good effect to build up a buffer on the larger break behind them, the former eventually pushing clear on his own.
With 35km to go Liquigas-Cannondale hit the front before Lotto-Belisol took it up on the final ascent of the day, Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) putting the power down on the climb before team-mate Jurgen Van Den Broeck attacked heading towards the summit.
Pinot put the hammer down and quickly overhauled Kessiakoff on the packed slopes of the final climb to power to a popular French victory.
After the stage Sports Director Sean Yates was happy to see Wiggins and Froome cross the line in the lead pack after the foundations were laid by superb teamwork throughout the day.
“It was a tough day but in the end it all worked out," he said. "Whichever way it panned out it was always going to be hard, not just for us but for everyone else. You can see that by the damage done and the time gaps between the groups it was not an easy day.
“The boys coped well with the attacks early on. We knew it was going to be full gas from the start. Christian was great today along with Eddy. Brad and Froomey were up there at the end when it kicked off. There were only five or six guys together over the top of the final climb.
“Tomorrow is the race of truth and the truth will be told.”