Both Froome and Contador remounted and finished the 168km stage in a group of the race favourites – but it was a tense finish for the race leader after a series of attacks from his Spanish rival on the final climb of the day, the Col de Manse.
Movistar rider Costa – winner of last month’s Tour de Suisse - secured the second Tour stage win of his career after attacking from a 26-man breakaway at the start of the decisive climb.
Two years after soloing to victory in stage eight of the Tour in Super-Besse, 26-year-old Costa repeated the feat with his Movistar team’s first win of the 100th edition of the race, crossing the line 42 seconds ahead of a chasing quartet of riders.
Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) led the group of favourites over the line 11 minutes 10 seconds down on Costa, with Team Sky’s Froome overcoming the late drama to retain his 4:14 lead over Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Belkin) in the overall standings.
"In my view, it was a bit dangerous of Alberto to ride like that on the descent. It wasn’t good," said a shaken Froome at the finish.
Saxo-Tinkoff’s Contador stays in third place, 4:25 behind Froome, ahead of Wednesday’s all-important 32km individual time trial.
Dutchman Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) dropped out of the top five after being distanced on the Col de Manse and coming home almost a minute down on his rivals.
Played out under sweltering temperatures in the foothills of the Alps, Tuesday’s stage was once again fast and furious, with a group of 32 riders – including the green jersey Peter Sagan (Cannondale) - quickly forming a group off the front of the pack after the start at Vaison-La-Romaine.
With three Alpine stages following Wednesday’s ITT, the stage offered the last chance for the ‘baroudeurs’ to notch a win before the climbers and GC favourites returned to the fray.
As such, the race was very nervous – and it all came back together after the Cat.3 Col de la Montagne de Bluye after 20km of frenetic riding.
A new group of 26 riders formed just ahead of the second climb of the day, the Cat.2 Col de Macuegne, 130km from the finish, featuring 16 of the 23 teams present on the Tour.
This decisive group included the likes of world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Europcar pair Thomas Voeckler and Cyril Gautier, Contador’s Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Nicolas Roche, Dutch national champion Johnny Hoogerland and his Vacansoleil-DCM team-mate Thomas De Gendt, Orics-GreenEdge pair Cameron Meyer and Michael Albasini, and Codifis’s Daniel Navarro.
With Team Sky controlling the peloton – which at one point was held up by a passing train – the escapees were allowed to build up a maximum lead of 12 minutes.
Frenchmen Blel Kadri (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Jean-Marc Marino (Sojasun) were first to attack from the break, jumping clear 15km ahead of the final climb to establish a 25-second lead.
But the pair was swept up shortly after the start of the Col de Manse after Australian Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) rode off the front of the chasing riders. Winner of a stage in May’s Giro d’Italia, Hansen’s time out in front was short-lived, the veteran domestique being caught by Costa after the Portuguese made his move 18km from the finish.
With the host nation still seeking a maiden win on the Tour, a quartet of three Frenchmen – Christophe Riblon (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Arnold Jeannesson (FDJ) and Jerome Coppel (Cofidis) – and Germany’s Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Leopard) rode in pursuit of Costa, but crossed the summit of the climb 50 seconds in arrears.
Costa kept his cool on the final descent into Gap to take his fourth win of the season and reward his Movistar team for their consistent attacking verve over the roads of France.
Riblon edged out fellow Frenchmen Jeannesson and Coppel to take second place 42 seconds behind, with Kloden crossing the line in fifth. The remnants of the break came home one minute down on the stage winner, Costa.
But the day’s main drama was still being played out on the final ascent of the Col de Manse, with some fierce pace setting by the Katusha team of Rodriguez blowing the race apart and distancing the likes of Ten Dam, Cadel Evans (BMC) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp).
A group of eight riders formed with Froome and his faithful Sky team-mate Richie Porte at its head, with Contador putting in a series of stinging attacks near the summit to distance Porte and isolate the yellow jersey.
With an 11km descent to the finish, the attacks did not stop.
It was this same sinuous descent, 10 years earlier, where Spaniard Joseba Beloki’s high-speed crash in melting tarmac forced the yellow jersey Lance Armstrong to cut across a field after being forced off the road.
And history repeated itself – but very much watered down – when Contador, pushing the pace, lost control on a tight bend and fell on his right elbow.
Taking evasive action, Froome rode into the verge on the left-hand side of the road, and was forced to unclip his right food and come to a complete standstill before remounting and chasing back on with Contador.
Thankfully for Froome, Porte had returned to his wheel – and the pair was able to rejoin the other favourites inside the final 3km.
Contador blamed the crash on the hot conditions and brushed off his injuries as “a small knock”.
But the incident served as a reminder to both Froome and Contador that this race will not be won until the yellow jersey arrives safely on the Champs Elysees next Sunday.
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