Tom Boonen won stage 12 of the Tour de France in Castres ahead of green jersey rivals Erik Zabel and Robbie Hunter.
Boonen celebrates on the line
Amets Txurruka and Pierrick Fedrigo, two of the Tour's lesser lights, came close to taking victory after breaking away at 50km into the 178.5km route.
But the pair were caught a kilometre from the finishing line, and the sprinters fought out the spoils.
On a day of little movement in the overall standings, race leader Michael Rasmussen maintained his advantage.
But the Dane will face a serious challenge over the weekend as the race hots up.
On Saturday, he will defend his lead of two minutes 35 seconds in the first of the Tour's individual time-trials before the riders head into the Pyrenees on Sunday for the first of three gruelling stages.
So in effect this was the calm before the storm, although a gusting headwind on the westerly route from Montpellier to Castres made it a hard day in the saddle.
After Britain's David Miller had seen an attempted breakaway thwarted for a second successive day, Txurruka and Fedrigo chanced their arm and were allowed to build up a gap of 11 minutes 25 seconds.
The Liquigas team started to reel them in but after maintaining a five-minute advantage over the Montee de la Jeante, a category-two climb 38.5km from the finish, the pair sensed the chance of a win.
However, the peloton had other ideas and timed their challenge to perfection.
Txurruka and Fedrigo touched hands as the pack swept past them under the kilometre to go banner and Boonen sniffed success.
After missing out because of a crash 24 hours earlier, the Belgian leader of the points classification was not to be denied.
"Yesterday, I was not lucky, today was okay," said Boonen. "I had won the last sprint before the Alps, now I win the last sprint before the Pyrenees. It's good for my morale."
He hit the front early, after being led out by Quick-Step team-mate Gert Steegmans, and had too much in the tank for Zabel and Hunter, edging the pair by half a bike's length.
And victory means Boonen has extended his lead to 20 points from Hunter, who is a point in front of Zabel.
But the trio's battle for green will now be pushed from centre stage as the race for yellow hits the front in the time-trial and then the Pyrenees.
Stage 12 result:
Montpellier to Castres, 178.5km
1. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step 4 hrs 25 mins 32 secs
2. Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram @ same time
3. Robert Hunter (SA) Barloworld @ same time
4. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Lampre @ same time
5. Thor Hushovd (Nor) Credit Agricole @ same time
6. Bernhard Eisel (Aus) T-Mobile @ same time
7. Sebastien Chavanel (Fra) Francaise des Jeux @ same time
8. Nicolas Jalabert (Fra) Agritubel @ same time
9. Robert Foerster (Ger) Gerolsteiner @ same time
10. Andrey Kashechkin (Kaz) Astana @ same time
19. Geraint Thomas (GB) Barloworld @ same time
117. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Cofidis @ same time
137. Charlie Wegelius (GB) Liquigas @ same time
140. David Millar (GB) Saunier Duval @ same time
1. Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank ) 53 hrs 11 mins 45 secs
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne @ 2 mins 35 secs
3. Iban Mayo (Spa) Saunier Duval @ 2 mins 39 secs
4. Cadel Evans (Aus) Predictor - Lotto @ 2 mins 41 secs
5. Alberto Contador (Spa) Discovery Channel @ 3 mins 8 secs
6. Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC @ 3 mins 39 secs
7. Andreas Kloeden (Ger) Astana @ 3 mins 50 secs
8. Levi Leipheimer (USA) Discovery Channel @ 3 mins 53 secs
9. Kim Kirchen (Lux) T-Mobile @ 5 mins 6 secs
10. Mikel Astarloza (Spa) Euskaltel @ 5 mins 20 secs
87. Charlie Wegelius (GB) Liquigas @ 1 hr 6 mins 58 secs
96. David Millar (GB) Saunier Duval @ 1 hr 10 mins 7 secs
108. Bradley Wiggins (GB) Cofidis @ 3 mins 20 secs
167. Geraint Thomas (GB) Barloworld @ 1 hr 50 mins 47 secs