Contador said his Italian teammate, Daniele Bennati, "rode a kilometer as if he were on a motorcycle. It was incredible, and that's what made the group break into a thousand pieces."
"All you could do was fasten your seat belt," said another of Contador's teammates, Nicolas Roche.
Never letting up, they got Contador to the finish 1 minute, 9 seconds ahead of Froome. Contador, the Tour champion in 2007 and '09 who was stripped of his title the following year for doping, was having a poor race. He was badly beaten by Froome in the Pyrenees and the first time trial. His team's efforts for him on Friday reinvigorated his challenge for the third week where Contador has proved strong in previous races. From fourth place, with a 3:54 deficit to Froome, he moved up to third, 2:45 off the lead. Belkin's smart and well executed plan also moved its rider, Bauke Mollema from the Netherlands, to second, now 2:28 from Froome, instead of the 3:37 deficit he started the stage with.
Still, Froome's time cushion remains significant and he is an excellent climber. The imposing Mont Ventoux this Sunday and the Alps next week offer him chances to do damage of his own.
"Having lost a minute there, that's always a bitter pill to swallow because we've worked really hard already to get the advantage we had. But saying that, we only lost a minute," he said. "I think there will be more time won and lost on a stage like Ventoux."
Cavendish just managed to stay with Contador's group when they accelerated away. He then beat Peter Sagan in the finishing sprint. Cavendish's 25th win moved him level with Frenchman Andre Leducq on the Tour's all-time list of stage winners. Now, only Bernard Hinault, with 28, and Eddy Merckx, with 34, have more than the Briton.
"An exceptional day," said race director Christian Prudhomme. "The Tour is far from over."