By Julien Pretot
BAGNERES-DE-BIGORRE, France (Reuters) - Chris Froome survived a brutal early onslaught from his Tour de France rivals to retain the yellow jersey after an epic ninth stage won by Ireland's Dan Martin on Sunday.
Having destroyed the field to snatch the overall lead in Saturday's opening mountain stage ahead of fellow Team Sky rider Richie Porte, the Briton had exposed himself to retaliation.
The Garmin-Sharp, Movistar and Saxo-Tinkoff teams blew the peloton apart in the first of five climbs on a searing hot day in the Pyrenees ahead of the rest day, with Froome soon finding himself isolated.
The moves eliminated Froome's lieutenant Porte, who lost his second place overall, and restored hope among the other teams that the Tour was not over yet.
Overall, Froome leads Spaniard Alejandro Valverde by 1:25 while Porte, who finished 17:59 behind, dropped well outside the top 20 as hopes of a second consecutive Team Sky one-two evaporated.
Froome, however, had an answer for every attack from Valverde's Movistar team mates, with Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff aides also joining the fight initiated by Garmin-Sharp's Tom Danielson, David Millar, Ryder Hesjedal and Martin, who is now eighth overall.
"It was one of the hardest days I've had on my bike," Froome told a news conference.
"It was a very difficult position to be in, but I'm really happy with how I've come through today having lost not too much time.
"It was quite straightforward however because my biggest rivals were in that group and obviously the objective for me was to make sure I'd stay with those guys."
The Movistar team were in control of a leading group in the last three climbs of the day but they ran out of energy and were eventually content with having eliminated Porte from the overall reckoning.
"It was a very tough day. In the end we eliminated Froome's team mates but he was really strong," Valverde, who finished in the leading group 20 seconds behind Martin, told reporters.
Colombian Nairo Quintana, holder of the white jersey for the best young rider, threw a few jabs in the last climb of the day to La Hourquette d'Ancizan (9.9 km at 7.5 percent) before the final descent to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
"It is not easy to follow Quintana, he's a light Colombian who can fly uphill," Froome said of the Movistar rider.
"I was ready for more attacks and I am glad there weren't."
Spaniard Contador, a Tour champion in 2007 and 2009, lies sixth overall 1:51 off the pace, while the Dutch pair of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam of the Belkin team are third and fourth.
"I think it was not the best day to attack because the last climb was 30 km from the finish," Contador, who was not at his best but looked in better shape than on Saturday, said.
"I will give it 100 percent in the time trial (on Wednesday), we will assess the situation and then we'll play."
Quintana's attacks in the final climb were not enough to drop Froome, who had let Martin and Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang go near the top.
Martin was the fresher man and he outsprinted Fuglsang to become the first Irishman to win a Tour stage since his uncle Stephen Roche in 1992.
"The last 30 kilometers were so hard, my legs have never hurt that much. I knew that if I could be in the last kilometer with him I was confident for the sprint," Martin, who also won the Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic this season, said.
Team Sky also lost Belarussian domestique Vasil Kiryienka, the only rider who finished the 168.5-km trek outside the time limit.
Former champions Andy Schleck of Luxembourg and Australian Cadel Evans finished in the leading group and lie in 15th and 16th place overall respectively.
Porte briefly hoped he would make contact with that group in the final climb but he eventually cracked.
"It was an amazing stage. Full credit to Valverde. He attacked so early," he said.
"Yesterday was my day, but today was probably the worst day I have had on a bike all season. There are still another two weeks of the Tour, so I will look forward to moving on."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Josh Reich and John Mehaffey)