Four times previously in the Pyrenees, Lance Armstrong stood on one of these mountaintops in triumph, having crushed the life from his merely mortal Tour de France rivals, leaving them quivering in the cold mists. It won't happen this year, though. The lofty peaks that separate France from Spain came too early in the race, the last two of the three stages here were poorly designed for high drama and, unlike in the past - before he retired for 3 1/2 years - Armstrong now has a truly formidable threat, Alberto Contador, as a teammate.
Today the most infamous of the Pyrenean roads, the Tourmalet pass, is on the itinerary. But Saturday's ride out of tiny Andorra into leafy Arriege likely provided a preview of how today's grueling procession from Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes is going to play out. If Astana had wanted to put Alberto Contador in yellow Saturday, it easily could have. Leader Rinaldo Nocentini was suffering on the Col d'Agnes climb and could easily have been tossed off a cliff. Instead, with an emergency pull from a teammate and the decision of Astana's riders to look only at the big picture, he kept the yellow jersey.
"It would take a lot of energy (out of) the team," Astana team director Johan Bruyneel said, explaining why Astana opted to keep the status quo, with Contador six seconds out of the lead. "Nocentini was having problems, but he was only 30 seconds maximum down, and he wasn't alone. When (the group around him) got organized, they would have chased (Contador), and it's not worth the effort because I don't consider Nocentini as a rival for the final victory.
"Any effort you do individually or in the team, it has to benefit the end result. This would not have done anything to improve our chances to win the Tour."
So they followed as Nocentini, a Tour rookie at 31, got an encore 15 minutes of fame because of another long descent, and another non-yellow-chasing rouler made his season - Spaniard Luis-Leon Sanchez won the stage, one day after Frenchman Brice Feillu. Contador, Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Andréas Klöden, Astana's fab four, remained second, third, fourth and sixth overall.
STAGE 8 WINNER: Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez, in a sprint ahead of three other breakaway riders. Sanchez won the Paris-Nice stage race in March. He crossed the line just ahead of France's Sandy Casar and Mikel Astarloza of Spain.
YELLOW JERSEY: Rinaldo Nocentini of the AG2R-La Mondiale team, who earned the jersey for the second straight day by finishing in a pack with Lance Armstrong and Astana teammate Alberto Contador.
TODAY'S STAGE 9: The ninth stage is the third and last in the Pyrenees before Monday's rest day in Limoges. It will take the riders from Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes on a 100-mile ride featuring two big climbs, the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet.