Frenchman Thomas Voeckler stubbornly held on to the Tour de France yellow jersey on Saturday as reigning champion Alberto Contador survived another onslaught in the mountains.
Contador, who has complained of a sore knee, came under constant attack on the grueling 15.8 km climb to Plateau de Beille but soaked up the pressure to lose only two seconds to key rival Andy Schleck.
"I didn't feel great," admitted Contador, who is still seventh overall at 4min 00sec behind Voeckler and 2:11 behind Frank Schleck. "But as each day passes I'm feeling better."
Belgian Jelle Vanendert, of the Omega Pharma team, meanwhile took a deserved victory on the 14th stage after jumping out of the group of overall favorites 6.8 km from the finish. He caught early breakaway rider Sandy Casar of France and despite a late counter-attack by stage 12 winner Samuel Sanchez the Belgian held on to claim his maiden win on the race.
Vanendert finished 21sec ahead of Euskaltel rider Sanchez, with former two-time runner-up Andy Schleck coming over the line at 46, two seconds ahead of a group containing all the other yellow jersey contenders.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd win a stage like this," said Vanendert, who has been given freedom to race for himself after team leader Jurgen van den Broeck crashed out injured last week. I came to the race with great form and ready to help Jurgen. This stage is also for him."
After their dominant Leopard-Trek team had set a demanding pace on the long flat stretch leading to the fifth and last climb of the day, Frank and Andy Schleck launched a series of small attacks in a bid to drop their rivals. Each time, Contador and Australian Cadel Evans - as well as Italian Ivan Basso and Voeckler - were able to counter and latch back on to the group.
Only in the final 2km of the 15.8 km ascent did Andy Schleck pull away, the Luxemburger grappling just two seconds from Contador in the process.
It meant Voeckler maintained his 1min 49sec lead on Frank Schleck, with former two-time runner-up Evans still third at 2:06. Andy Schleck, the runner-up the past two years, is fourth at 2:15 with Basso in fifth at 3:16. Contador is another 44secs off the pace in seventh.
Andy Schleck said: "We gave it a good try but we didn't drop anybody, except for the two seconds I gained at the end. The climb wasn't selective enough. Once we get to the Alps that's when we will make a difference."
Older brother Frank appeared to launch a veiled attack at Contador and Evans, criticizing the pair for not attacking themselves.
"We tried several times. The only one who was a little bit interested was Ivan Basso," said Frank. "All the others just looked at each other. Me and my brother and Basso, we tried to actually race."
Evans, whose yellow jersey bid seems to be getting stronger by the day, immediately hit back.
"Everyone says no one attacks, but you have to consider also the wind, and the closeness of the racing," said the Australian. "The Schleck brother are there, they ride all day, they've got the yellow jersey to gain and they look at me to pull for them? "I feel like saying, 'hang on a second, I'm not here to tow you to Paris'."
Voeckler meanwhile upset his own prediction that he would lose the jersey on the toughest day in the Pyrenees.
"I don't really know what to say. I'm really surprised," said Voeckler, who came over the finish line shaking his fist in celebration.
Having famously worn the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004, Voeckler can now realistically keep it until the first of three consecutive stages in the Alps starting Tuesday.
"I think he's going to go a few more days at least," added Evans. "As long as they (Europcar) don't have it on the Champs Elysees."