GAP (AFP) - Britain's Geraint Thomas survived a terrifying crash on a hair-raising descent as Ruben Plaza won Monday's 16th stage of the Tour de France.
Chris Froome finished in an elite group of favourites to maintain his 3min 10sec lead over Nairo Quintana but his teammate Thomas came close to disaster on the 201km ride from Bourg-de-Peage to Gap.
Young Frenchman Warren Barguil lost control on a dangerous corner and bumped into Thomas who was knocked over a sheer drop, hitting his head on a lamppost as he went over the edge.
Incredibly, the tough Welshman climbed back onto the road and after a swift change of bikes, he carried on, losing only 38sec by the finish and holding onto his sixth place overall.
"I'm OK, I just hit my head on a lamppost but I'm alright," said the chirpy 29-year-old, who reacted with typical dry humour.
"It was a hard right and I was just following the wheel and then all of a sudden Barguil went into me.
"I feel alright for now. I guess the doctor will ask me my number and date of birth soon," he added, jokingly claiming to think his name was Chris Froome.
"A nice Frenchman pulled me out but I lost my glasses as well. They don't even make them any more." Barguil blamed the crash on American Tejay Van Garderen, claiming the BMC man had bumped into him before he lost control.
"I'm sorry. Just before the bend, Tejay Van Garderen touched me with his shoulder and my finger slipped off the brake," said the 22-year-old.
But Van Garderen saw things differently.
"Warren was trying to come over the top of me. I was trying to keep my position and stay safe," said the 26-year-old, third overall at 3min 32sec.
"It was a matter of who breaks the latest, he (Barguil) was willing to take great risks, he took out Geraint Thomas and almost took out himself."
- 'Groggy' -
A French TV commentator following on a motorbike said Thomas looked "groggy" but fine as he remounted.
That drama happened almost 20 minutes back from Spaniard Plaza's stage victory as the Sky-led peloton had shown no interest in chasing a 23-man breakaway.
Lampre's Plaza attacked with 18km left on the final climb - an 8.9km-long second-category ascension with an average gradient of 5.6 percent.
He crested the summit, 12km from the finish, with around a minute's gap to nine chasers as the breakaway group had splintered.
Peter Sagan led the chase and came home second at 30sec - taking his fifth runners-up spot on a stage this year as his two-year wait for a Tour victory drags on.
Colombian Jarlinson Pantano was third at 36sec while Eritrean Daniel Teklehaimanot earnt his best finish at the Tour, finishing seventh.
"It's the most important win of my 15 years as a professional," said the 35-year-old Plaza.
Sagan took the defeat well: "Maybe my time is coming." Behind the breakaway, Van Garderen's BMC team had picked up the pace of the peloton coming into the final climb before Alberto Contador's Tinkoff-Saxo outfit pushed hard on the ascent.
Contador himself attacked near the top of the climb, but Froome managed to reel him back in, only for reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali to take the opportunity to accelerate away himself.
The Italian had eeked out a 15sec gap to the rest of the favourites at the top and by the finish he had snatched back a morale-boosting 28sec on what has otherwise been a disappointing defence of his title as he sits eighth overall.
Nibali, known for his daredevil descending, was clear of the drama behind him but Thomas showed great bravery in carrying on and only losing 38sec by the finish - an incredible effort given he had to change bikes after clambering back up onto the road.
The big loser, though, was Frenchman Tony Gallopin, who started the day ninth but seemed to lose his bottle on the descent and lost 3min 39sec to drop out of the top 10, with Barguil benefitting.
In the breakaway group, Australian Adam Hansen was the first to strike out for home inside the final 50km before Austrian champion Marco Haller caught him.
But they were both hauled back early on the final climb and after several tentative attacks, Plaza managed to make one stick.