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Coming after a second rest day, Stage 17 of 20 in the 2010 Tour de France looked set to decide the overall winner.
Following two category-one climbs, the final mountain stage would end with an 18.5 kilometre-long "beyond categorisation" climb up the legendary Col du Tourmalet.
If Alberto Contador still held the yellow jersey after the famed ascent, the Spaniard would, in all likelihood, become champion in Paris in a repeat of his 2007 and 2009 triumphs.
Trailing Contador by just eight seconds, Luxembourg's Andy Schleck also had a first title in sights as the field set out from Pau.
Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez fell heavily but would recover to finish fifth.
With Carlos Sastre in hot pursuit of the leaders, Team Sky's Juan Antonio Flech was first to master climb one to the Col de Marie-Blanque.
BMC's Marcus Burghardt led the field at the end of the second climb to the Col du Soulor.
Schleck made a break for glory with 10 kilometres to run. But the Saxo-Bank rider, who realistically needed to open around a minute-and-a-half's advantage over Contador, found the two-time champion right on his tail.
The pair caught and passed Alexandr Kolobnev, and exchanged stares, but they couldn't be separated. Contador attacked only once under four kilometres from home.
Schleck held on to to win the stage in five hours, three minutes and 29 seconds, but Contador retained his eight-second race lead.
Spain's Joaquin Rodriguez finished third, Charteau of the Bbox Bouygues Telecom team took the polka-dot jersey for best climber, and Norway's Thor Hushovd holds the green jersey for points leader.