Exceptional work by Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff team allowed a breakaway containing several GC contenders stay clear of yellow jersey Froome and a fractured peloton, while Cavendish outsprinted green jersey Peter Sagan to take his second stage win of this year's race – and the 25th Tour scalp of his career.
Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, the Dutch duo from Belkin, were also in the decisive break, as Froome's Team Sky support imploded on a blustery day that had been expected to provide a run-of-the-mill bunch sprint finish.
Spaniard Alejandro Valverde was the big loser of the day after picking up a puncture just as the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team of Cavendish forced the first splits in the peloton.
Second on GC after stage 12, Valverde was distanced in a group alongside triple stage winner Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) with more than 85km remaining, the Movistar rider eventually coming home a massive nine minutes and 53 seconds in arrears to drop out of the top ten and see his chances of a podium place in Paris disappear.
German national champion Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) led the main pack over the line 1:09 down on the Saxo-fuelled breakaway as Froome saw his lead at the top of the standings cut to 2:28 on Mollema, who finished the stage in third place behind Cavendish and Sagan.
Contador, whose Saxo-Tinkoff team-mates forced the late break 32km from the finish, rose to third on GC, 2:45 down on his rival Froome. The Spaniard’s Czech team-mate Roman Kreuziger is fourth, at 2:48, while Ten Dam is now fifth, at 3:01.
Played out under another bright blue sky, Friday’s 173km stage from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond looked like the usual transitional fodder as a group of six escapees broke clear from the outset and built up a maximum lead of three minutes over the peloton.
But fierce crosswinds in the Indre region of central France completely changed the dynamic of the race after Omega Pharma-Quick Step piled on the pressure with over 110km still left to race.
The first break was swept up as numerous splits occurred in the peloton and the in-form Kittel was among the riders dropped.
What started as a means to rid the main pack of the man who beat Cavendish in Tours the day before soon took on a different complexion when Valverde punctured on the exposed road shortly after the only categorised climb of the day.
The veteran Spaniard was surrounded by five Movistar team-mates – and although they rode to within 12 seconds of the main pack, the combination of winds and the arrival of Belkin alongside OPQS saw that gap balloon to over a minute.
Soon Valverde rode alongside Kittel in a main chasing group, with another grupetto minutes further back.
Just when it seemed that Valverde was to be the only big name casualty of the day, Saxo-Tinkoff took advantage of a slight split on the front of the pack to blow life back into the 2013 Tour.
Instigated by former Team Sky rider Michael Rogers, six Saxo-Tinkoff riders edged ahead and were joined by around a dozen others – including Cavendish and Sagan.
“The opportunity arose for us and we took it and rode as hard as we could,” a shattered Rogers said after the stage. “We decided in a split second. I said to the boys, ‘let’s go, we have nothing to lose’. This race is not over yet.”
Over rolling terrain as the race approached the finish, the gap slowly increased just as Froome’s support got thinner and thinner. One by one, the likes of Kanstantsin Siutsou and Ian Stannard dropped back, leaving Froome badly in need of the injured Edvald Boasson Hagen, who was forced out on Thursday with a broken right shoulder.
Meanwhile, on the front of the race Contador rallied not only his team-mates but also the rest of the break, reminding Mollema and Ten Dam just how much they too stood to gain.
As the leaders approached the centre of Saint-Amand-Montrond, Cavendish and Sagan – the two danger men for the stage victory – rode on the back in anticipation of the final sprint.
Nicki Terpstra led OPQS into the final kilometre before handing over to Sylvain Chavanel. Cavendish then roared forward, and although Sagan rode in his rival’s wheel, the Slovak sensation did not have the speed to challenge for the win.
“It’s was incredible,” Cavendish said after his 25th win on the Tour. “When echelons start you have just five seconds to react or it’s too late. It's like falling through ice - you have five seconds of it's over. I almost missed the Saxo split but just made it on. The whole team rode out of their skin today.”
Cavendish’s second victory of a troubled Tour sees the Manxman cut Sagan’s lead in the green jersey standings to 84 points.
Meanwhile, Froome retained his overall lead but the 28-year-old’s grip on the yellow jersey looked increasingly vulnerable at the hands of Saxo-Tinkoff and Belkin’s combined efforts.
“These kinds of stages often look simple on paper but that’s not always the case,” he said. “I was feeling comfortable but I missed the split. After that, it wasn’t easy for anyone.
“Tomorrow is lumpy and then we have the Ventoux. It’s going to be a very exciting weekend of racing.”
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