Chris Froome battled back from a dramatic late incident to maintain his advantage at the top of the Tour de France’s overall standings.
Froome was one of only eight riders left in the peloton over the day’s final categorised climb, but had to unclip his foot on the fast descent to the finish after Alberto Contador overcooked a corner immediately in front of him, which forced both riders into an abrupt and untimely halt.
Fortunately, Richie Porte reacted to the situation immediately and was able to pace Froome back to his closest rivals, with Contador trailing his wake.
The eight-man group were back together as they passed under the flamme rouge and crossed the line 11 minutes and eight seconds down on Movistar’s Rui Costa, who had taken a fine solo win after his well-timed attack.
Froome was somewhat ruffled immediately after the stage, but took time to praise Porte after his team-mate chased down several late attacks and managed to get himself back in the front group after temporarily falling off the pace.
He said: “It was quite a dangerous descent and a bit careless of Alberto Contador to attack like that. He was really pushing the limits around the corners and pushed himself too far when he crashed in front of me. I went off the road a little bit and had to correct myself, unclip, and get back going again.
“I was lucky to have Richie Porte with me and I don’t know how many times he covered their attacks before that – it must have been about 10 times. He’s an absolute gem of a person and I’m really lucky to have him riding with me.
“There’s no such thing as an uneventful day here. It’s been really tough racing all the way and if they’re not attacking on the climbs, they’re attacking on the descents.”
Porte admitted he had been expecting those attacks and predicted there would be plenty more to come as the race traverses the Alps.
“It made sense that they were going to attack, he said. “It was a hard start and we expected they would try something on that last climb and descent. They had to try something so hats off to them. They were good today, the Tour’s not over yet and they are going to keep riding aggressively.
“I’m ready for the Alps. After a rest day it’s always tricky but this wasn’t anything we didn’t expect. It’s nice to be able to cover those moves for Chris and make it a little bit easier on him.”
The stage had got off to an equally intense start with Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) all attempting to get in the breakaway before Team Sky eventually allowed 26 riders up the road.
The likes of Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil) and world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) were all present in the group that did go clear, and with the best-placed rider over 23 minutes adrift in the general classification, they opened up a substantial gap as they headed east towards Gap.
The break was already eight minutes ahead when the peloton was temporarily halted at a rail crossing, and over 12 minutes clear as they began their final climb of the day.
Blel Kadri (AG2R) and Jean-Marc Marino (Sojasun) were the first duo to attack from that group, but as the road ramped upwards they were passed by Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol), and Costa followed suit before riding his everyone else off his wheel and descending alone for Movistar’s first Tour win of 2013.
Costa crossed the line with a 42-second cushion over Christophe Riblon (AG2R), who outsprinted Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ), Jerome Coppel (Cofidis) and Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Leopard) in a four-way battle for second place.
Back in the peloton, riders were being shelled left, right and centre as Kanstantsin Siutsou, Peter Kennaugh and Richie Porte all set a furious pace on the Col de Manse, with Porte also repelling several attacks from Contador as they battled their way to the summit.
Contador continued to push the pace as the road dropped down to the destination town and the Saxo-Tinkoff rider almost paid for his own exuberance. His crash on one particularly tight corner forced Froome on to the grass and both were temporarily distanced as their rivals pressed on ahead.
Fortunately, Porte was there to lead the chase and all three riders restored parity inside the last 2km before crossing the line in a group containing five of the top-six riders in the overall standings. Laurens ten Dam was the only rider not present in that group, and the Belkin man lost one minute exactly after rolling home in 39th position.
Those results ensured that Froome remains 4min 14sec ahead of Bauke Mollema (Belkin) in the battle for the yellow jersey, with Contador 11 seconds back in third position and his Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Roman Kreuziger three seconds further adrift in fourth.
Froome also tops the mountains classification with a 17-point lead over Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
After the stage, thoughts immediately turned to Wednesday’s time trial, which sees the riders tackle a 32km route from Embrun to Chorges, featuring two second-category climbs.
Froome admitted it would be a delicate balancing act to ride the stage as quickly as possible while also trying to conserve some energy for the three brutal mountains tests that follow.
He said: “It’s going to be a really tough time trial tomorrow and everyone will be going as hard as they can. You have to keep in mind that the day after we’re going up Alpe d’Huez twice, though, so it’s going to be a difficult. I think people are going to have to pace themselves over the next few days, keeping in mind that this really is the business end of the race now.”
Porte agreed, and revealed he would be saving himself on the 17th stage in preparation for the bigger test to come.
He added: “I’m going to take it as easy as I can tomorrow. For me, it’s all about those last three days in the mountains, to be there for Chris and make sure he’s supported as much as possible on those climbs.”