Plateau de Beille, France (Sports Network) - Jelle Vanendert captured Stage 14 of the Tour de France atop Plateau de Beille on Saturday, while Frenchman Thomas Voeckler passed another test in the mountains to hold on to the yellow jersey.
Voeckler has not been considered a threat to finish on the podium at the Tour. He was expected by many -- including himself -- to lose his lead once the race hit the mountains.
But the Europcar leader has stuck with the favorites throughout the Pyrenees in dogged fashion. On Saturday he covered numerous attacks heading up Plateau de Beille and crossed the line with the main group of general classification contenders.
He holds a 1:49 lead over Frank Schleck of Leopard-Trek and a 2:06 advantage over BMC Racing Team's Cadel Evans.
"It's hard for me to believe that I'm in yellow after the Pyrenees with almost the same gap that I had before," Voeckler said. "I won't understand it if it continues like this for the last week because it's unbelievable for me."
Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) won the stage, just two days after barely missing out on a victory. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) beat him to the top of Luz-Ardiden by seven seconds on Thursday, but the Belgian attacked in the middle of Saturday's final climb and was allowed to pursue the stage win.
Sanchez set off in pursuit a short while later, but couldn't make the catch. Vanendert claimed his first career Tour stage victory and took over the polka dot jersey competition as the race's top climber, while Sanchez finished second, 21 seconds behind.
"It's like a dream come true," Vanendert said. "After last year, when I didn't race for seven or eight months because of two knee injuries, I think my career has now started."
Andy Schleck used a late attack to finish third, 46 seconds back of Vanendert, while Evans led a large group over the line two seconds later. That group included Voeckler, Frank Schleck, two-time defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale).
Saturday's 168.5-kilometer stage featured six categorized climbs, including a pair of Category 1 ascents up the Col de la Core and Col d'Agnes. But the main contenders stayed together through the first five as a breakaway of about two dozen riders animated the stage.
The break had split up by the time the race reached the Plateau de Beille ascent, when France's Sandy Casar carried a lead of several minutes over the peloton.
However, he had two things working against him. The climb -- 15.8 kilometers long with an average gradient of 7.9 percent -- and the speeding peloton driven by the Schlecks' Leopard-Trek team.
Belgian Maxime Monfort and German Jens Voigt, who was part of the early breakaway before crashing twice on a descent, set a furious pace at the bottom of the mountain and shed many riders.
Only several kilometers into the climb, the main group consisted of about 20-25 riders.
The attacks started with 10 kilometers to go, when Andy Schleck took the first dig. He and his brother Frank put in a handful of short attacks in the following kilometers, but they weren't sustained attacks. There were more brief accelerations that forced other contenders to chase but never totally split apart the main group. Evans, Voeckler and Contador helped drag the other favorites back at different points.
With about seven kilometers to go, Vanendert surged off the front and didn't draw a response from the others. He started the day nearly 13 minutes behind Voeckler, and wasn't a threat to shake up the overall standings.
He quickly caught and overtook Casar, whose lead had dwindled after the Schlecks' early attacks and who eventually finished nearly four minutes behind Vanendert. The stage provided more dashed hopes for his FDJ team, which has animated the race but come up agonizingly short of a stage victory.
Casar finished third out of a breakaway in Stage 9, while Jeremy Roy was kilometers away from a brilliant solo victory on Friday before world champion Thor Hushovd of Garmin-Cervelo powered past him.
Several kilometers after Vanendert attacked on Saturday, Sanchez tried to get away twice and succeeded on the second one, setting off toward the top alone.
Basso was setting a steady pace back among the other GC favorites, who marked each other successfully in the climb's final stretches. Still, Plateau de Beille caused some changes in the overall classification.
Andy Schleck remained in fourth and trimmed his time gap to 2:15. Basso is still fifth, 3:16 back of Voeckler, while Sanchez moved up to sixth (3:44). Contador (4:00) is seventh and Lampre's Damiano Cunego lost some time on the ascent to fall to eighth (4:01).
Tom Danielson is the highest-placed American, sitting in ninth. The Garmin- Cervelo rider couldn't follow the Voeckler group but didn't lose a large amount of time and trails Voeckler by 5:46. Belgian Kevin De Weert (Quickstep) is 10th at 6:18.
Saturday's stage was the last in the Pyrenees, and the Tour now heads toward the Alps. But Sunday's Stage 15 provides a reprieve. The 192.5-kilometer route from Limoux to Montpellier has one small climb but is otherwise flat.
Voeckler should be able to hang on to the yellow jersey and now has an opportunity to recover, as Monday is the Tour's second rest day.
07/16 14:11:36 ET