Team Sky’s Froome left his main rivals trembling in his wake to win the longest stage of the 2013 Tour ahead of Colombia’s Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and move more than four minutes clear at the top of the general classification.
A grimace turning to a triumphant grin, Froome crossed the line atop the famous moonscape of Mont Ventoux one minute and 40 seconds ahead of his big rival Alberto Contador, who finished sixth in the wheel of Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Roman Kreuziger, to secure his second victory of the Tour after claiming stage eight at Ax3 Domaines.
Spaniard Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel) took third place on the 242.5km stage from Givors ahead of compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), both 1’23 down on Froome. Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Belkin) came home in eighth place, six seconds behind Contador.
Twenty-eight-year-old Froome now leads Mollema by 4’14 on GC, with Contador in third place at 4’25 going into the second rest day.
“It’s the biggest victory of my career today,” said an ecstatic Froome. “This climb is so historic and even more so with this being the 100th edition of the Tour.”
With Quintana looking so strong, Froome said that his priority was not the win but increase his lead over his rivals: “It was my main objective today to make more of a buffer on the general classification rather than win the stage.
"I thought I was going to surrender the victory to Quintana because he was very good when I joined him on the front. But in the last 2km I saw that he was tiring and so I went for the win.”
Colombian climber Quintana struck the first blow for the race favourites in the claustrophobic forested section of the ‘Giant of Provence’, 12.5km from the summit of the legendary peak.
Quintana soon joined Nieve 55 seconds ahead of the main pack, which was being driven by Sky pair Richie Porte and Peter Kennaugh.
"Today's result is good," Quintana said. "I felt well all day, and even though we didn't win, the were at the front and we took back the white jersey we lost in the TT.
"I attacked because I saw many riders struggling and knew it was a zone where very few could keep a strong pace. The idea was to win some time and get close to the podium; I knew the white jersey would come with that attack and I dreamt of winning the stage, too.
"Unfortunately, Froome caught me. He's way superior than the rest. The first attack came from behind and took me out of focus. I followed his wheel in the distance and ended up bridging.
"He thought I was stronger than I was really feeling, and that's why he talked to me, telling we should keep pushing to leave Contador behind, and he'd let me win the stage.
"But I knew it was a bit of 'fake agreement', because I saw how strong he was and I had to fool him a bit to get that far into the climb."
With the likes of former Tour winner Andy Schleck and polka dot jersey Pierre Rolland already off the back, Australian veteran Cadel Evans, the 2011 winner from BMC, soon popped along with American youngster Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) as the pace kept rising.
Once Kennaugh peeled off to an almost complete standstill, Australian Porte took up the tempo treading for Froome – and to devastating effect.
Showing the form he had in the opening Pyrenean stage last Saturday, Porte’s acceleration with 8km remaining ended the chances of all Froome’s rivals with the exception of Contador.
Following a nod from Porte, Froome then made his decisive attack with 7km to go, driving a rapid cadence to leave Contador pedalling squares. The Kenyan-born rider soon rode level with Quintana and the pair combined together until the final 2km when Froome decided to give his rival no gifts and roared off the front towards the finish.
Further back, Contador rode alongside Nieve in pursuit, but the two-time Tour champion soon dropped back to a chasing group that had formed around Rodriguez, Mollema and his Belkin team-mate Laurens Ten Dam.
Froome’s victory also saw him to the top of the king of the mountains standings on 83 points, although Spaniard Nieve, second on 66 points, will wear the polka dot jersey on Tuesday when the race resumes.
Quintana’s solid second place saw the 23-year-old return to the top of the white jersey standings, which he leads by 2’11 over Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
A frenetic start to the stage saw numerous riders try their luck at breaking away – including world champion Philippe Gilbert and Germany’s Tony Martin, who finished second behind Spanish veteran Juan Manuel Garate the previous time the race finished on Mont Ventoux back in 2009.
Both Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) picked up points over the first of two lower category climbs before a break of 11 riders formed after 30km of fast racing at an average speed pushing 50kmh.
Polka dot jersey Rolland was quickly dropped from the leading group, which included five Frenchmen - Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ), Jeremy Roy (FDJ), Christophe Roblon (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Julien El Fares (Sojasun) – as well as the green jersey Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Spaniards Markel Irizar (RadioShack) and Juan Jose Lobato (Euskaltel), South African Daryl Impey (GreenEdge) and Dutchman Wout Poels (Vacansoleil).
Hell-bent on a Bastille Day win, Rolland did not give up and joined forces with Marcus Burghardt (BMC) in pursuit of 10 escapees once the Team Sky-led peloton had called off the chase.
After a leg-sapping hour of riding “chasse-patate” between the leaders and the pack, Rolland and Burghardt returned to within 100m of the escapees before the break dug in to re-establish a significant gap. Sensing that he was persona non grata, Rolland dropped back into the pack, which was now riding at six minutes.
Perhaps responding to the break’s snub towards Rolland, Team Europcar came to the front of the pack to lead the chase, combining with Movistar to reduce the deficit to less than four minutes by the time the race passed through the town of Nyons, 58km from the finish, which was reached a whopping 45 minutes ahead of schedule because of the relentless tempo.
Sagan picked up maximum points at the intermediate sprint to more into a virtually unassailable 104-point lead over Mark Cavendish in the green jersey standings.
Chavanel then broke clear off the back of the small Col de la Madelaine ahead of the final ascent to give the French crowds something to cheer at the base of Mont Ventoux.
Sagan the showman performed a wheelie just as the peloton swept him up inside the final 20km – by which point Rolland, shattered from his earlier effort to join the initial break, had been dropped by the pack, his black day complete on what should have been a day of celebration.
Riding his garish custom-made orange bike, Chavanel rode with a 1’25 advantage over the pack as Euskaltel’s Nieve made the first attack off the front of the Sky-led peloton with 13.5km remaining. Moments later, Quintana made his move, setting in motion the chain of events that would see Froome put himself into a commanding lead in the 2013 Tour ahead of a brutal final week in the Alps.
The Tour continues on Tuesday with an undulating 168km stage 16 from Vaison-la-Romaine to Gap. A hilly 32km time trial on Wednesday is followed by the queen stage on Thursday, which concludes with back-to-back ascents of the famous Alped’Huez.