Johan Museeuw returned to the jersey he wore following Tuesday's team time-trial after drawing level on time at the first intermediate sprint, just as Yates had feared. Now six seconds separate them at the top of the standings with Miguel Indurain, seeking four Tour victories in a row, 26 seconds behind in seventh spot.
The danger signs for Yates were there at Rouge, the site of the sprint, as second place and four seconds' time deduction fell to the Belgian. Yates still led the tie-breaker by virtue of a better performance in the opening time trial a week ago. Then Museeuw broke through with a victory at the final intermediate sprint after a furious chase for 164 kilometres had reeled in the Italian Eros Poli.
For some time, Poli became 'leader on the road' as his lead built to 18 minutes. That ended before Lencloitre. Yates would rather that it had lasted until after that town, which hosted the last intermediate sprint where Museeuw did the damage. The day on the road from Rennes ended with the Slovakian Jan Svorada edging out Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, of Uzbekistan, for a first Tour victory.
Team rivalry saw Museeuw's team-mate, Dane Rolf Sorensen, penalised 20 seconds and fined 500 Swiss francs for pulling at Yates during the intermediate sprint won by the Belgian.
Yates finished deep in the pack at the Futuroscope leisure park, near Poitiers, after a week which began and ended with Britain in the colours that have brought glory to 206 riders from 17 nations since 1919.
Yates is No 206 in that list: an unexpected and unassuming bearer of colours for which riders have cheated, been crippled, and died in the quest to wear them. 'I never think about what might happen,' Yates said. 'I just do the job and things develop.
'It would have been nice to hold it for two more days, but for me one is great. It's a big deal and we tried to hang on to it, but Museeuw is fast and can pick up time bonuses. Anything could happen. Look at Friday. Our team knew that there was a chance to take it before Monday's time trial.'
Yates said on Wednesday that he had reached a new high when the Tour passed within six kilometres of his Sussex home, down roads where, 15 years before, Yates was winning as an amateur.
'I never imagined that I would ride in the Tour de France so close to my home,' he said. Yates's previous Tour highspot was winning a time-trial stage at Wasquehal in 1988. His professional racing life has been spent mostly working hard for team-mates since he first graduated into the paid ranks to join Peugeot, whose colours Tom Simpson wore when he gave Britain that first yellow jersey 32 years ago.
Yates first sampled the tang of the Tour in 1984 when Robert Millar, also a Peugeot graduate, climbed into the honours list with Britain's first outright honour, the red polka- dotted jersey of best in the mountains. He also established the best British overall position of fourth at the same time.
Tomorrow's time trial into Bergerac is Boardman's last throw of the Tour dice. It is a 64km test against the clock in which Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger are expected to make their first real move for the yellow jersey. After losing his yellow jersey to Museeuw, who then lost it the next day, Boardman slipped into the background to recover from defending his colours. 'I intend to stay in the pack and not try anything until Monday,' Boardman said.
Rominger is having electrotherapy on a knee injury, and Indurain is staying even more silent than usual. Britain waits with anticipation.Reuse content