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Duo climb-time players

Dessel takes lead, Mercado the stage

PAU, France -- Lance Armstrong once said there are no gifts at the Tour de France -- a maxim that a Frenchman and a Spaniard showed still holds true, even with the seven-time champion out of the picture.

Racing toward the finish of yesterday's 10th stage, having left the field far behind on hard mountain climbs, Cyril Dessel and Juan Miguel Mercado talked about which of them should reap the win.

Dessel already knew the ride had been good enough to earn him the overall leader's yellow jersey and, as icing on the cake, the polka-dot jersey as the best mountain climber, too.

Mercado figured that was glory enough and that Dessel should leave the honor of winning the stage to him. He leaned over and said so -- only to be told no.

Unable to agree, the pair battled in a finishing sprint -- and Mercado turned out to be slightly quicker. It was the Spaniard's second stage win in three Tours.

Their race redeemed an otherwise anticlimactic first day in the high mountains, where top contenders sat back and let lower-placed riders get way ahead.

Expending energy chasing after Dessel's group of 15 escapees would have made little sense, because none is likely to threaten for the Tour title. Instead, the favorites saved themselves for yet harder mountain stages to come.

American Floyd Landis, German Andreas Kloeden, Australian Cadel Evans, previous race leader Serhiy Honchar of Ukraine, and 70 others finished together 7 minutes 23 seconds behind Mercado and Dessel.

Dessel holds a lead of 2:34 over Mercado. Honchar slipped to third, 3:45 behind Dessel. Cristian Moreni is fourth, with Landis next, 4:45 behind the leader.

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