A dramatic racing incident that has put seven-time champion Lance Armstrong within sight of the race's yellow jersey has been blamed, ironically, on Alberto Contador.
Contador, the 2007 champion who is Armstrong's teammate at Astana, was among a handful of big yellow jersey contenders to lose time on the race's windswept third stage on Monday won by Britain's Mark Cavendish.
Cavendish's Columbia team had increased their pace to such an extent near the end of the 196km ride from Marseille that, after a right-hand bend, an unexpected split left 29 riders in the front.
The rest were left behind and they battled hard to limit the damage before trailing in 41 seconds behind Cavendish and Armstrong, who moved up seven places from 10th to third overall at 40 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara.
After the stage, Frenchman Christophe Le Mevel claimed it was Contador's failure to stick to the wheel in front of him which caused the split with around 30km to go.
"When the split happened I was right on (behind) Contador's wheel," said the Francaise des Jeux rider. "If it's true there were 29 guys in front he must have been 30th and I was 31st. It was him who caused the split."
With the peloton reaching speeds in excess of 60km/h on the Tour, adverse wind conditions make sticking on wheels vital - and a task that no serious contender can miss.
Once a gap opens up, it is almost impossible to close - as Columbia showed on Monday when they quickly distance a peloton of around 150 riders.
"I saw the gap opening up just in front of us and we just couldn't close it," added Le Mevel, who came over the line with the main bunch at 41 seconds in arrears. "With a lot of leaders stuck, it was complete panic."
While Contador began the day in second place overall and was considered Astana's official yellow jersey challenger, this incident will raise doubts as to whether he is indeed up to the job.
Armstrong, who steadfastly refuses to rule himself out of aiming for an eighth Tour de France crown, appeared to make a veiled reference to Contador's slip when he held court at Astana's team bus.
"It wasn't that they didn't take advantage. It was just that they weren't there," he said when asked why the other favourites failed to follow. When you see what the wind is doing and you have a turn (bend) coming up, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you have to go to the front.
"I've won the Tour de France seven times, so it makes no sense not to be there."
A defiant Contador later claimed he simply got caught but he did not want to read too much into the end result.
"When the split happened I was riding up to the front with a team-mate and then I ended up in no man's land," he said. "So it was better to wait. Ahead, Columbia were very well organised."
He added: "I do not want to evaluate the tactics of the team, everyone can come to his own conclusions. Anyway, the Tour is not going to be decided with that has happened today."
For Procycling Magazine's blog on the topic, click here.
© 2009 AFP & BikeRadar