PAU, France -- Unheralded French rider Cyril Dessel took the Tour de France leader's yellow jersey Wednesday on the first high altitude stage, and American Floyd Landis fell from second to fifth overall.
Juan Miguel Mercado of Spain won the stage, beating Dessel in a sprint to the line at Pau. The previous yellow jersey holder, Serhiy Honchar of Ukraine, was still riding far behind with the main pack of racers when Mercado and Dessel finished.
Honchar and Landis were in a pack that finished 7 minutes, 23 seconds behind the leaders. Landis placed 50th in the stage, and fell to fifth overall -- 4:45 behind Dessel.
Dessel is not considered a threat to win the overall title, so Landis and other top riders were content to let him and other lower-placed cyclists get away. He started the 10th stage in 28th place.
"I have the yellow jersey and the [climbers's] polka-dot
jersey, I can be satisfied with my day even if I didn't win the
stage", said Dessel, who became the first Frenchman to don
yellow since Thomas Voeckler in 2004.
"I didn't want to let Mercado win because a stage win in the Tour is something rare. If I had won the stage it would have
been a perfect day."
The Tour's top contenders decided not to overly exert
themselves, saving themselves for harder days ahead. The toughest
Pyrenean stage is Thursday, with five hard climbs, including an
uphill finish. And the Alps, which could decide the outcome of the
three-week race, come next week.
Landis, Australia's Cadel Evans, Germany's Andreas Kloeden and others vying to become Lance Armstrong's successor focused on not
losing time to each other, finishing together in the pack.
Dessel of the AG2R team and Mercado, leader of Agritubel were among a group of 15 riders who broke away just before the first climb of the day, the third-category Col d'Osquich.
Dessel was first over all three of the climbs, two of which were particularly arduous. As he and Mercado rode alone toward the finish in Pau, the Spaniard asked Dessel to let him win the stage, because the Frenchman would be taking the yellow jersey.
"He said 'No,"' said Mercado. Dessel said the opportunity to
win a stage was too important to pass up.
The pair competed in a sprint to the line. Mercado accelerated
faster and won by inches.
Dessel holds a lead of 2:34 over Mercado in the overall
standings. Honchar is third, 3:45 behind Dessel. Italian rider
Cristian Moreni is fourth, followed by Landis.
"He surprised me," Dessel said of Mercado.
Dessel is the first French rider to hold the yellow jersey so
far this year.
"It's a dream come true," he said. "I am audacious. I know
how to take risks and it paid off. It's awesome."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.