Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins kept hold of the yellow jersey as Thomas Voeckler enjoyed victory in an excruciating 10th stage from Macon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine.
Wiggins maintained his one minute 53 second advantage over Cadel Evans, the Australian arriving home just ahead of the Great Britain rider in the same group, three minutes 16 seconds behind Voeckler as the hors categorie Col du Grand Colombier and third category Col de Richemond tore apart an already fragmented field in the final third of the 194.5km race.
Voeckler triumphed after being part of a 25-man break which went clear after a frantic opening to the day, getting the better of Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) and Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) as five of the original group fought out the finish.
The 194.5 kilometres stage from Macon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine provided the latest test for Team Sky in defence of Wiggins' advantage - and they stood firm in the face of a big attack from fourth-placed Vincenzo Nibali.
That came on the tricky descent of the hors category Col du Grand Colombier, 43km from the finish, as the Italian threw down the gauntlet.
Widely regarded as the best descender in the peloton, Nibali attacked immediately after cresting the summit and was able to open up an advantage of over a minute on the yellow jersey group. He was helped by Liquigas-Cannondale team-mate Peter Sagan, the green jersey holder having been part of the original escape.
However Team Sky refused to panic and, despite seeing Michael Rogers drop back with a puncture early on the descent, gradually began to reel in Nibali.
That was due to Richie Porte who produced a superb turn on the front which enabled them to catch Nibali with 20km remaining, just before before the final climb of the day up the Col de Richemond.
The run-in to the finish from there saw a battle of attrition between the five riders up front but it was Voeckler who timed his late attack perfectly to land the spoils.
Commenting after the race Wiggins said: When [Vincenzo] Nibali teamed up with [Peter] Sagan it did look as though it had the potential to work but we do have to gamble a little bit here, we can't just chase everything that moves and fortunately we didn't panic. We got down that descent, rode hard on the next climb and got him back so it all worked out.
“You've got to continually calculate in your head and be quite businesslike and not let the emotion of the moment get to you. But Jurgen [van den Broeck] is five minutes down so we could afford to let him slip away slightly. Nibali went alone and I knew that he would have had to make quite a big effort in the last 30 kilometres or so to stay away alone... so we sort of gambled a bit, thinking that we'd be able to peg him back – which we did. We kept cool in those moments and it's times like that that certainly will help us win the Tour. But they are moments when we could potentially lose the Tour as well.
“I can't express my appreciation to the work of my team-mates. ‘Thank-you' is not enough for the work that they do. But we've been together all year, we've been training together, we've been rooming together... and they're a fantastic group and I certainly wouldn't be in this position without them.
“It was pretty straight forward today really. The break went early and we didn't have to go crazy like we did in Switzerland that day [stage eight]. We knew that the climb would be tough but that, probably, the attacks would come on the descent – which they did. So it all went to script today and it all worked out. There wasn't any moment when I was really worried.
“We're in a massive bubble and we have no idea what's going on at home although I can understand what the reaction to the Tour is like because I sat at home and watched it myself last year. I know how much people follow it at home and that's fantastic but cycling is becoming more and more popular and mainstream. The exploits of Chris Hoy on the track and stuff like that is fantastic for our sport and fantastic for sport in the UK.”
Tour de France Stage 10: Mâcon - Bellegarde-sur-Valserine 194.5km
1. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 4:46:26
2. Michele Scarponi (Ita) Lampre - ISD 0:00:03
3. Jens Voigt (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan 0:00:07
4. Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:00:23
5. Dries Devenyns (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep 0:00:30
6. Sandy Casar (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat 0:02:44
7. Egoi Martinez De Esteban (Spa) Euskaltel - Euskadi
8. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar
9. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team
10. Dmitriy Fofonov (Kaz) Astana Pro Team 0:02:52
General classification after stage 10
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky Procycling 43:59:02
2. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:01:53
3. Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:02:07
4. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:02:23
5. Denis Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team 0:03:02
6. Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack-Nissan 0:03:19
7. Maxime Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan 0:04:23
8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto Belisol Team 0:04:48
9. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:05:29
10. Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 0:05:31