This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Portugal's Rui Costa (Movistar) proved he was the strongest of the 26-rider breakaway that dominated and decided stage 16 to Gap, winning alone after a solo attack on the last climb of the Col de Manse.
The stage was not expected to change the overall classification but a series of attacks by Katusha and then Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) on the final climb, and then the descent made famous by Lance Armstrong and Joseba Beloki in 2003, kicked off the action.
Contador was kept in check by Richie Porte and then Chris Froome on the climb but then in almost a re-enactment of the Armstrong/Beloki moment, Contador crashed on a corner, with Froome also going down after taking to the grass to avoid Contador. Both got up and closed the gap but yet again this year's Tour de France produced further unexpected drama.
It also changed the top ten overall, with Laurens ten Dam (Belkin) the biggest loser. He was not part of the front group with Froome, Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff), Porte, Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Ten Dam finished 1:00 behind the Froome group with Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and others, losing his fifth place overall to Quintana. Rodriguez also moved past Fuglsang to take seventh place at 7:11, with Fuglsang now eighth at 7:22.
Froome still leads Bauke Mollema (Belkin) by 4:14, with Contador third overall at 4:25.
"There's no such thing as an uneventful day here," Froome said with a smile.
Froome and Contador both hit the deck today, but remain in first and third overall
"It's a really tough race. If they're not attacking me on the climbs, they attacking me on the descent.
"It was quite a dangerous descent and quite famous for Beloki's crash and Armstrong doing his off-road stuff. It was a bit careless of Contador to attack. He was pushing the limits and crashed. I went off the road and had to unclip before getting back going again. I was lucky to have Richie Porte there. He covered about 10 attacks and I'm really happy to have him there with me."
Froome's thoughts quickly turned to Wednesday's time trial but he warned that too big an effort could see riders pay in the following Alpine stages.
"It's going to be really tough," he said. "Everyone is going to go going hard but it's important to keep in mind we go up Alpe d'Huez twice the day after. People will need to keep in mind that this is the difficult part of the race now."
The stage victory by Costa, the second of his career at the Tour de France, provided some relief for he and his Movistar squad that had their multiple general classification options reduced solely to Nairo Quintana following a disastrous outing on stage 13.
Costa claims his second career Tour de France stage
"This win is important for me and for the team," Costa said. "I worked hard to be ready for this Tour but I lost a lot of time on the same day that Valverde did, so I had to change my plans for this Tour. We were looking for a stage victory and now that we have one, we can be more relaxed going into the Alps.
"It was a good stage for a breakaway. It was a big fight to get into the move, but once we pulled clear, I was feeling good and was confident. Winning helps take away from the disappointment of the overall."
Early attacks and the break of the day
The stage to Gap was the last rolling stage before the time trial and the high mountain stages and so was expected to be dominated by a breakaway, with riders looking for glory before the final fight for the general classification. Several riders warmed up on the rollers before the start after studying the hilly profile of the stage. Early fireworks were expected.
The attacks came as soon as race director Christian Prudhomme dropped the start flag at kilometre zero. 179 riders were left in the peloton after Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) retired to illness and 19-year-old Danny van Poppel (Vacansoleil-DCM) was pulled out of the race by his team.
Manuele Mori (Lampre-Merida) was the first to surge clear and he was quickly joined by others in a hectic first hour of racing. Twenty riders formed a significant attack and then the group increased to 32 riders. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) were in there and the Canadian was the first to the top of the first climb. However they dropped back, along with several others. Thirty two riders was just too big a group to work smoothly together. Eventually 26 riders came together up front, with the peloton - lead by Team Sky - happy to let them go.
"There's no such thing as an uneventful day here," Froome said of the Tour
The 26 included some quality riders: Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol), Philippe Gilbert and Manuel Quinziato (BMC), Andreas Kloden, Laurent Didier and Tony Gallopin (RadioShack Leopard), Cyril Gautier and Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar), Blel Kadri and Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), Yury Trofimov (Katusha), Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Rui Costa (Movistar), Jerome Coppel and Daniel Navarro (Cofidis), Manuele Mori (Lampre-Merida), Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp), Michael Albasini and Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge), Tom Dumoulin (Argos-Shimano), Thomas De Gendt and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM), Jean-Marc Marino (Sojasun) and Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ.fr).
They rode together for close to 100km, working smoothly in a double pace line, with some riders trying to miss turns to save their legs for the climbs in the finale. Behind, Sky's Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas and David Lopez did much of the chasing for race leader Froome. The rest of the peloton was happy to sit behind them and enjoy the transfer to the heart of the Alps.
The attacks up front began with 34km to go, with Marino and Kadri the first to try their hand. However it was too early and they were quickly passed by Hansen on the early slopes of the 9.5km-long Col de Manse. The attacks blew the break apart, spitting riders out of the back and revealing the form and strength of everyone else.
Costa quickly passed Hansen and surged on alone. The two-time Tour de Suisse winner is a class act and quickly opened a lead on four chasers, riding a time trial to the summit and down the descent. Kloden, Riblon, Coppel and Jeannesson worked hard to try to chase him down but made little impact on the climb and on the descent to Gap.
The overall battle heats up
Behind the battle for the overall classification also came alive when Katusha hit the front. Two teammates blew the peloton apart for Rodriguez, forcing a select group clear. Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) were unable to go with them, Cadel Evans (BMC) and ten Dam were also dropped in a surprise split.
Near the top of the climb there was a further escalation when Contador had two serious digs in the big ring. The first caused little damage but the second seemed to hurt Froome slightly. However Richie Porte was Contador's match and pulled him back to the group.
Contador also had a try on the twisting descent but paid for his own exuberance. He crashed just after a corner and forced Froome onto the grass . The incident could have had a huge impact on the race but both got up quickly and chased back onto the front group with some help from Porte.
Contador sarcastically gave Quintana the thumbs up just before the finish, apparently unhappy that the Colombian had attacked on the descent while he was down.
The stage to Gap had been a painful day for everyone. It was supposed to be a day of transition and transfer. Instead it hinted that there will be far more attacks in this year's Tour de France before Sunday's final stage in Paris.