Mark Cavendish's hopes of winning the green jersey were dealt a severe blow when he was relegated to last place in the bunch at the end of stage 14 to Besançon.
The Isle of Man sprinter went into the day just five points adrift of Thor Hushovd (Cervélo), but a frantic and confusing finale saw the Columbia-HTC team miss out on two fronts.
Early in the day, before the first intermediate sprint, Cavendish got in a break but decided not to persist with it. Later a 12-man break got clear, with his team-mate George Hincapie in it. The break's lead went up to more than 10 minutes with Hincapie the best-placed, 5-25 minutes down on Rinaldo Nocentini.
The gap came down slowly, offering Hincapie a chance of taking the jersey. Serguei Ivanov surged clear of the break to win the stage alone, and Hincapie crossed the line 16 seconds later in eighth place.
Then all eyes were on the clock. And boy, was it going to be close.
The thing was, Columbia also needed to set up the sprint for Cavendish for him to gain points on Hushovd. He needed to win the bunch sprint for 13th place, and hope that Hushovd slipped up. But Columbia also wanted to stall the pace in the bunch to give Hincapie a chance of a day of glory.
Cavendish won the bunch sprint, crossing the line in 13th place. For Hincapie, they crossed the line six seconds too soon. Rinaldo Nocentini kept yellow.
However, in the final metres Cavendish drifted slightly to his right as he was looking over his left shoulder, expecting Hushovd to try to pass him on that side. His movement steered Hushovd into the barriers and the Norwegian had to brake as he crossed the line to finish 14th, shouting at Cavendish as he did. Cervélo complained and the race jury agreed. Cavendish was relegated to 154th place and therefore won no points.
Now Cavendish trails Hushovd by 18 points with precious few oportunities to make up the deficit.
In a statement released by his team, Hushovd said; "[Cavendish] tried to push me in the barriers. I could pass him, and when he saw me coming, he pushed me into the barriers. That's not fair game. I am really tired of this. That's why we put in a protest, so I hope he is going to be disqualified on the stage."
"It was the first time today, when I saw what happened, I couldn't believe it. Today I cannot accept it. That's not correct what he did today. I had to brake. I could have passed him, but I had to brake. It's OK if he's faster than me, I accept it, when he doesn't follow the rules, then that's not good."
Cavendish said nothing in public. He got in the Columbia bus immediately, although it's a safe bet to say he's livid. His team mate and lead out man Mark Renshaw said on his Twitter feed; "We sprinted in line with the barrier, Its not our fault the barrier was uneven on the right. Come on ASO, make them even in the last 1km."
The Briton is now playing catch up. There are intermediate sprints to fight for, but with Hushovd riding so strongly the chance of narrowing the gap significantly in the Alps is very slim.
Friday's stage to Aubenas has a second-category climb near the finish and the way Hushovd has been riding, he could get over it and score more points.
If the gap remains 18 going into the final stage to the Champs-Elysees, Cavendish will have to win and hope Hushovd is outside the top ten. It's a very tall order.
It is now conceivable that Cavendish could win five stages of the Tour but fall short in the green jersey competition.
TOUR DE FRANCE 2009 LINKS
Tour de France 2009 - the hub: Index to reports, photos, previews and more.
Stage 13: Haussler braves rain for victory in Colmar
Stage 12: Sorensen wins in Vittel as Cavendish goes for green
Stage 11: Cavendish takes fourth win to equal Hoban's record
Stage 10: Cavendish spoils Bastille Day party to take third stage win
Stage nine: Third French win as contenders content with ceasefire
stage eight: Sanchez wins from break as Tour favourites cancel each other out
Stage seven: Feillu wins at Arcalis, Nocentini takes yellow, Contador leap-frogs Lance
Stage six: Millar's brave bid denied on Barcelona hill as Hushovd triumphs
Stage five: Voeckler survives chase to win his first Tour stage
Stage four: Astana on top but Armstrong misses yellow by hundredths of a second
Live Tour de France stage four TTT coverage
Stage three: Cavendish wins second stage as Armstrong distances Contador
Stage two: Cavendish takes first sprint
Stage one: Cancellara wins opening time trial
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Tour de France 2009 News Index>>
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The Tour de France Comment: Monday, July 13
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Armstrong: 'If Contador wins, I'll be second'
Wiggins 'on cloud nine' at Tour de France
Armstrong says Contador attack wasn't in the plan
Cavendish survives the first Tour mountain stage with ease
Wiggins, the Tour de France overall contender, has arrived
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David Zabriskie's time trial bike
Mark Cavendish on the Tour's team time trial
David Brailsford interview
Mark Cavendish on the Tour
Jonathan Vaughters on Bradley Wiggins' chances
TOUR DE FRANCE 2009 PHOTOS
Stage 12 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 11 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage 10 photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage nine photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage eight photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage seven photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage six photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage five photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage four TTT photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage three photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage two photo gallery by Graham Watson
Stage one photo gallery by Andy Jones
Stage one photo gallery by Graham Watson
Team presentation by Andy Jones
Team presentation by Graham Watson
Tour de France 2009 - the hub
Tour de France 2009: Who's riding
Tour de France 2009: Team guide
About the Tour de France
Tour de France 2009: Who will win?
Tour de France 2009 on TV: Eurosport and ITV4 schedules
Big names missing from 2009 Tour de France
Tour de France anti-doping measures explained
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Cycling Weekly's rider profiles
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