IT WAS supposed to be the entree to Sunday's mountainous main course, but Stage 8 was more like a well-done roast.
Frenchman Lilian Calmejane fought through late cramps to claim his first Tour de France stage win at ski village Station des Rousses - emerging solo from a large breakaway on the final climb.
But for all the talk of Team Sky giving up the yellow jersey to a non-threatening rider to ease pressure, Chris Froome's teammates kept the pace high to discourage rival attacks.
It meant that on another scorching day where sections of bitumen melted in the sun, the pace was just as hot even if Froome retained yellow and there were no changes in the general classification.
A 50-rider lead group that formed about halfway through the stage averaged a painful 47kmh over the first 140km on a demanding route through the Jura mountains. Calmejane needed to average 41.59kmh to win.
With the foot on the gas, Froome ran off the road on a decent and Team Sky teammate Geraint Thomas crashed on the same corner, but both were unhurt.
By the end, the common belief among the riders was that the stage would make Sunday's daunting 181.5km, four-mountain journey from Nantua to Chambery even more epic.
Aussie Richie Porte, who remained fifth overall, 39 seconds behind Froome, predicted fatigue would be a major factor.
"That was a pretty wild, old stage. Tomorrow we'll feel that one in the legs for sure,” Porte said.
"You're going to have to (go all-in). It will be such a hard day and everybody had a solid day today so I think they'll be some tired legs out there.”
Froome said: "That was a really tough day, especially with tomorrow in mind.”
Thomas put the relentless day into context. "There wasn't time for a leak all day. We were just full-on, on the pedals all day,” Thomas said.
"Tomorrow is another level again and it's going to be tough.”
Simon Yates, who stayed in the young riders' white jersey, believed Sunday's Stage 9 would the hardest day of the Tour.
"It's really a monster of a stage and I'm sure there's going to be some changes on GC,” Yates said.
"You look at how hard the climbs are in the beginning and the final one is a monster of a climb.
"Today was pretty hard. There was a lot of chaos and tomorrow will be another hard day in the (hurt) box. I hope to have good legs.”
Calmejane's win wasn't without its dose of drama. With a memorable win beckoning, the Direct Energie opportunist slowed to a crawl with 5km to go as cramps ravaged his body.
But he would fight through them to hold off Dutchman Robert Gesink by 37 seconds and compatriot Guillaume Martin (+50 seconds) to add to his 2016 Vuelta a Espana stage win.
"It's incredible. Since the Tour started we've been at the front, but I never thought it would lead to a success like this,” Calmejane said.
"I'm a rider who likes to animate the race and I said to my teammates that I wanted to try something today. I never imagined such a scenario.”