Chris Froome (Team Sky) had to fight to save his Tour de France leader's yellow jersey on the roads through the Massif Central to Puy-en-Velay after a mechanical problem at the foot of the key category one climb with 36km to go and attacks from his rivals pushed him to the limit.
Froome was 45 seconds behind his rivals at one point but managed to close the gap with a huge effort and some vital help from his teammate, including Mikel Landa, who dropped back to ensure Froome was back on before the top of the climb.
Froome later suggested he had suffered a broken spoke in his wheel. It could have cost him the race.
"If I didn't get back on, I wouldn't have expected to be in yellow this evening. I had to get back on over the top or it was game over for me," Froome admitted.
"It was a stressful moment. I wasn't sure if I'd get back on again. It was panic stations. It was if I had to attack to get back on. I had to go very deep, I had no option. If I didn't go over climb with favourites it would have been a danger. I had to put in a big effort as the team did, they all emptied themselves and I'm very grateful for that."
Froome was forced to stop at the foot of the 8.3km Col de Peyra Tailarde climb with 36km left to race. Romain Bardet's AG2R La Mondiale team was already driving the group of overall contenders and so the race was very much on.
Waving his hand and realising something was wrong with his back wheel, Froome got a wheel from teammate Michal Kwiatkowski but had lost 45 seconds and faced arguably the biggest chase of his career.
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He got some help from Mikel Nieve and Sergio Henao and then, once near the Bardet-Aru group, Mikel Landa dropped back to help him too, dispelling any questions about his loyalty. Froome managed to make it back to the leaders just before the summit of the climb and was even able to follow an attack by Barguil and keep his rivals in check.
Dan Martin attacked in the final kilometres to gain 14 seconds at the finish. He moved past Landa into fifth place overall, 1:12 down on Froome. However, the Briton and Team Sky could let out a collective sigh of relief, knowing they had avoided disaster.
"It couldn't have come at a worse time today, the speed was probably its highest at that point of the race, as we were coming into the foot of a climb. It was a really bad moment," Froome admitted.
"I've got to thanks my teammates yet again for helping me. Sergio Henao and Mikel Nieve gave their maximum. Landa too. He dropped back with about a kilometre to go and helped me a lot on the climb."
Enjoying the rest day the right side of the GC
As riders enjoy the second and final rest day of this Tour de France, Froome leads Fabio Aru by 18 seconds, with Romain Bardet third at 23 seconds and Rigoberto Uran fourth at 29 seconds.
Froome is happy to be in yellow as he tries to recover on Monday before the final showdown in the Alps later in the week.
"At this point, it's so close, with so many guys within one minute of the overall title, it's going to be about every second all the way into Paris," he warned.
"I'm very grateful I'm on the right side of the time splits and not trying to make up time, especially with two big mountains to come and the final time trial. I'm just grateful to have survived today. We've got the rest day to regain some strength and switch off so I can hopefully come back fresh for the third week."
Froome insisted he was still mentally fresh but admitted that two weeks of intense racing had taken its toll physically.
"Mentally I'd say I'm pretty alright. It's been chaotic and today was extremely stressful but at the same time it's easy for me to put it out of my mind and move on and be ready for the Alps," he said.
"Physically been taxing, it's been flat out; you can feel it in the peloton. The speed has dropped; the attacks aren't as fast as in week two. It's to be expected because we've raced the last few stages very hard."
Froome admitted that he expected a close fight due to the limited time trial kilometres and the few mountain finishes. The final podium places in Paris will be decided in the Alps on Wednesday and Thursday and then in Saturday's time trial in Marseille.
"We still have a very difficult road ahead of us," he warned, while also trying to stay upbeat as if firing a warning shot to his rivals.
"I'm confident. I had a difficult day in the Pyrenees but I'm feeling much better now. I hope to keep the yellow jersey until the time trial, it's the final test for the GC. Before then we've got some very tricky stages, too, of course. I imagine it's going to be aggressive racing."
No time for partisan booing and polemics
Froome was booed and abused by roadside fans during the stage recalling the allegations that someone had thrown urine at Team Sky in 2015. That claim sparked controversy, but this time Froome insisted he was not affected by the partisan crowd that was cheering for local hero Romain Bardet.
"This is Bardet's home stage and it's to be expected that the crowd gets behind him. That's bike racing," Froome said dampening any polemics.
"I think the support has been great so far. The French have animated the race and have won several stages. I can only thank the fans that came out and created a great atmosphere."
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