During his rest day press conference, Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) had talked hopefully of finding an ally of circumstance in Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the high mountains of the final week of the Tour de France, but the cracks in that potential coalition are showing even before the race enters the Alps proper.
After Contador's volley of attacks on the ascent of the Col de Manse in the finale of stage 16 had formed an elite group of eight riders but failed to discommode yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky), the Spaniard tried again on the very descent where his fellow countryman Joseba Beloki dramatically crashed out of the 2003 Tour while seeking to put Lance Armstrong under pressure.
Like Beloki, Contador was a faller on the descent and, as was the case 10 years ago, the yellow jersey also went off the road, but mercifully that was where the parallels ended. Both Contador and Froome quickly remounted, and with the help of Richie Porte (Sky), they succeeded in latching back on to the Quintana group.
As the eight-man yellow jersey group hurtled towards the finish in Gap, however, Contador - usually the most unflappable of characters - drew alongside Quintana and gave him an ironic thumbs up. The reason? According to Contador's version - corroborated to Cyclingnews by Belkin's Bauke Mollema - Quintana had accelerated immediately after the crash.
"Honestly, I haven't even spoken with the riders yet, so I can't tell you what happened," Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue told Cyclingnews as he leaned against his team car, parked on a side street past the finish line. "I don't think he can have accelerated much because they got back up to him pretty quickly. I didn't see the gesture, but I think you'd need to ask Alberto what it meant."
Five hundred metres back up the road, Quintana was on the rostrum receiving the white jersey of best young rider. The 23-year-old extended his lead in the competition over Michal Kwiatkowski on Tuesday and also leapfrogged Laurens ten Dam into fifth place overall to boot, but when he entered the mixed zone behind the podium area, he was immediately asked about the Contador incident.
"If Contador is upset, then I'm sorry but we didn't attack because he was dropped," said Quintana. "I just kept going at my rhythm because I wanted to distance Kwiatkowski in the young rider classification, as well as the other riders who had been dropped.
"Contador set a high tempo on the descent, but I didn't see how the crash happened. In the heat of the race, you don't always realise what is happening. In any case, if he is offended, then I apologise."
Quintana's Movistar teammate Rui Costa claimed the stage win in Gap after attacking alone from the early breakaway, while his leader-turned-deluxe domestique Alejandro Valverde finished alongside him in the Froome group. On the eve of Wednesday's 32-kilometre time trial to Chorges, Quintana struck an optimistic note, pointing out that the hilly course is far better suited to his talents than last week's test on the Norman coast.
"I've recovered well from Mont Ventoux," Quintana said. "Tomorrow, I need to do a good time trial so that I don't lose too much time to my rivals. The parcours is better for me than the one at Mont-Saint-Michel last week because there are two climbs on it."