Super-Besse, France: The Tour de France yellow jersey remained on Thor Hushovd`s shoulders on Saturday despite the efforts of Cadel Evans and Alexandre Vinokourov in the eighth stage.
Victory in the 189-km stage went to Portuguese Rui Costa, who led the first successful breakaway of this year`s race as he beat Belgian Philippe Gilbert by 12 seconds.
Australian Evans led a group of favourites in third place, 15 seconds off the pace, with three-times champion Alberto Contador and his main challenger Andy Schleck among them.
Hushovd, who had said he expected to lose the leader`s jersey on the hilly stage from Aigurande, still leads Evans by one second, with Luxembourg`s Frank Schleck in third place four seconds off the pace.
"I pushed my limits. I knew this stage would be hard with a bit of mountains and a tough finale," said the Norwegian world champion, who claimed the yellow jersey after last Sunday`s team time trial.
"Deep inside, anyway, I was hoping I could keep it," added Hushovd.
Dutchman Robert Gesink, one of the leading contenders for a podium finish in Paris, lost more than a minute to the favourites after being dropped in the penultimate ascent of the day.
His Rabobank sports director Adri van Houwelingen said: "A minute is an important loss, but it`s not just a minute. The problem is that Robert`s been in pain and has been complaining about it since he crashed three days ago."
"I went to the limit but the limit was not high enough," said Gesink.
Czech Roman Kreuziger, who injured his wrist in a crash on Friday, could not sustain the pace either and lost some 20 minutes.
Evans`s BMC team controlled the main pack all day and were occasionally helped by Vinokourov`s Astana team, with the Kazakh rider launching an attack 26 kms from the line in an unsuccessful attempt to claim the yellow jersey.
BMC upped the pace in front of the peloton and Vinokourov stalled in the final climb as Costa held off the favourites` group to claim the win.
"It`s was a tough day but I knew I had what it takes to go all the way. I held off (the peloton), I got a bit lucky," said Costa.
Contador, who lost more a minute when he was held up in a mass pile-up in the first stage, looked sharp, just like Evans and Andy Schleck, as the trio head into a three-way battle for the overall victory.
"There is still a long way to Paris," said Evans, who wore his team mates down in a failed attempt to win either the stage or the jersey -- although BMC denied they had any specific target.
"We did a good stage, we were in front all day because the idea was not to lose any time," said BMC team manager John Lelangue.
"At the end of the day, we don`t take the jersey but it was not our goal. We did not get the stage win but it was not our objective today."
Contador, whose climbing abilities are second to none, is now up to 20th in the overall standings, 1:42 behind Hushovd.
"I had excellent feelings for the first time," the Spaniard told reporters.
"We were all close. What matters is to have good legs. I think (the battle) will start in the Pyrenees (next week) but there`s tomorrow first."
Andy Schleck, who is sixth overall 12 seconds off the pace, also looked in shape for the first time since the Tour started.
"I felt good. The stage ending at Mur de Bretagne was not designed for me," he said, referring to the eight seconds he lost to Contador earlier this week. "But today, I felt good."
German Andreas Kloeden, Italian Ivan Basso, Belgian Juergen van den Broeck were all in the favourites` group.