The Spaniard has become a savvier rider with age. Because I’m a doper? “Sometimes, when you change the rhythm, it can produce a surprise”.

“Actually we were just talking about the crashes when five of us fell”, said Contador, who escaped uninjured.

“It’s not the Tour, we’re not in the same place, I’m here with the prime minister”, he said. This Tour de France is still on.

Yellow jersey: Chris Froome.

Other riders that could feature in today’s proceedings include Pierre Roland, Robert Gesink, Alejandro Valverde, Bauke Mollema, Mattias Frank and Richie Porte.

Quintana, who was welcomed like a king stepping out of his palace as he exited the Movistar bus before stage 12, “does not know fear”, according to his team. The leader of the Katusha team also won a shorter uphill finish on Stage 3.

Contador, attempting a rare Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double, lies sixth, 4:04 off the pace.

At the finish of Stage 12 to the Plateau de Beille ski station, which marked the end of three days of climbing in the Pyrenees, Rodriguez waved a pointed finger like John Travolta dancing in “Saturday Night Fever” and thrust both arms in the air.

World champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) had seemed to be performing under-par early in the race, but was prominent until the day’s final climb, when he was caught and overtaken by Rodriguez.

After two days in the Pyrenees, the 30-year-old may have killed off all semblance of suspense at the Tour before it even reaches the Alps. Now they’ll need their rain gear.

The 195-kilometer (121-mile) trek to the Plateau de Beille, which draws cross-country skiers when it snows, took the Tour up four increasingly high ascents, 53 kilometers (33 miles) in total.

Tour chiefs had called him “disrespectful” for agreeing to take part in the charity ride, which tackles the race’s 21 stages a day ahead of the competing riders.

Armstrong himself dismissed any concerns about a return to the Tour de France – at least in an unofficial capacity.

“It’s normal that people ask questions, my job is to be here, be open and answer those questions”. “I am not a specialist”.

It left Tejay Van Garderen, safely home in 13th, second at 2:52 overall with Quintana third at 3:09. Talansky was forced to quit the tour the following day, but he’s back this summer for his third try at the race, aiming for a top-10 finish.

Van Garderen, Colombia’s Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador of Spain say it’s not over yet. “If that were the rule, the caravan would nearly be empty”, Armstrong said on cyclingnews.com.

Englishman Chris Froome has never tested positive for drugs, but he has been forced to field increasingly tense questions on accusations of doping. “From the start I was trying to go in the breakaway, but all the other sprinters were on my wheel and they didn’t want me to go”.

Riding with amateurs and without hordes of fans cheering him on is a major comedown from Armstrong’s heydays from 1999-2005, when winning the Tour turned the cancer survivor into a superstar.

The battle for the points classification has been hot throughout the first half of the Tour, with Sagan and Greipel swapping the shirt regularly. Since the day before yesterday, the race situation is another story with Chris Froome’s coup.

— By John Leicester in Lannemezan, France.