GAP, France (AFP) – Australian Richie Porte was back at his climbing best as Sky team leader Chris Froome came under attack at the Tour de France where a late crash incident threatened his grip on the race.
Team Sky leader Froome started and finished the day still leading Dutchman Bauke Mollema and Spaniard Alberto Contador by 4min 14sec and 4:25 respectively.
But had it not been for Porte, the Kenyan-born Briton could have been counting the cost of a disastrous eighth day in the yellow jersey.
On the 9.5 km climb to the Col de Manse, whose summit is 11.5 km from the finish, Froome came under attack from Contador and his Czech teammate Roman Kreuziger as Portuguese rider Rui Costa rode solo towards the stage 16 win.
Porte, however, countered every time to bring his team leader level and despite dropping back momentarily after yet another Contador/Kreuziger assault, the Tasmanian dug deep to rejoin the group ahead of the winding, dangerous descent into Gap.
"It gave me a lot of confidence, and a huge morale boost having Richie Porte there," said Froome.
"It was quite an active final climb... he literally must have covered about ten attacks from Kreuziger and the other guys who were moving, (Alejandro) Valverde, (Joaquim) Rodriguez."
While Froome weathered the storm on the way up, he almost came a cropper on the descent.
The descent into Gap, which is surrounded by mountains, is famous for a 2003 incident in which Lance Armstrong, who was in hot pursuit of Joseba Beloki, had to ride through a field to avoid hitting the fallen Spaniard, who broke his hip.
Since Contador's efforts on the climb proved futile, he decided on some dangerous tactics on the twisting, 11.5 km descent to the finish.
However that approach almost led to disaster.
He misjudged a tight right-hand bend and came off his bike, with Froome just missing the Spaniard.
Froome, who left the road and had to unclip from one of his pedals, eventually rallied to rejoin a small group and came over the finish line alongside Contador.
But the scare prompted the Kenyan-born Briton to hit out at what he labelled "desperate" tactics by Contador's team.
"I personally feel that some teams are starting to get desperate now and are taking uncalculated risks," said Froome, who has held the race lead since winning stage eight at Ax-Trois-Domains in the Pyrenees.
"It seemed that Kreuziger and Contador were taking it in turns to come from the back with a bit of acceleration and try to force a small gap on the descent, hoping that we'd lay off and give them a bit more space.
"On this particular corner, Contador just came through fairly quickly and he struggled to hold on to his bike, to keep control of it, and he crashed just in front of me.
"If you ask me, it was dangerous for Alberto to do that. There was no need for it."
Contador has so far been dominated by Froome in the high mountain stages of the race, forcing him to take every possible opportunity to close his deficit before the race finishes on Sunday.
The Spaniard, who also escaped unscathed from the incident, was unapologetic: "That's cycling," he said.
And his team sporting director Fabrizio Guidi warned: "Going for the overall (victory) is not just something we say. We showed today that we keep on putting the pressure on Froome and we're willing to take chances."
Froome, who finished runner-up to Tony Martin in the stage 11 time trial, is expected to increase his lead after Wednesday's 32 km race against the clock from Embrun to Chorges.
In the ensuing days the yellow jersey will be decided by three tough days in the Alps, including mountaintop finishes at Alpe d'Huez and Annecy-Semnoz.
After one great and one poor display in the Pyrenees, Porte said he is ready to roll: "I'm ready for the Alps."