This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) broke his run of second places to win stage 7 of the Tour de France into Albi. There was no elaborate victory celebration, as the Slovak was just relieved to finally get off the mark at this Tour.
Sagan has had to settle for three second places to date, but he repaid his team’s efforts to beat John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) in the sprint with Daniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff) in third. He has extended his lead in the green jersey competition over André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) to 94 points.
The Cannondale rider was clearly overjoyed with his victory. “I feel very good,” he said at the finish. “I’m very happy and I have to thank my team because I couldn’t do what I did without my team. This victory is for all of the team. I’m very happy because I didn’t feel very good after the crash on the first stage but day by day I’m feeling better and now I’m really happy to have my first stage win of this Tour de France.”
While it was, as anticipated, a sprint finish, many of the marquee names were missing in the finale in Albi. Cannondale took to the front on the second climb of the day, the Col de la Croix de Mounis, and blew most of the fast men out of the back of the peloton. Despite the best efforts of their teams, they sat up after the final climb of the day, and Greipel and Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) crossed the line more than 14 minutes behind Sagan.
Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) finished safely inside the peloton to keep his yellow jersey for another day. All of the big favourites finished in the front group and there was no change in the top 10.
Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) retained the jersey he was wearing at the start of stage 7
As it happened
The temperature was once again high as the riders rolled out, and so was the pace. The peloton exceeded the 60kph barrier on a number of occasions. There was an early break of six riders, including Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard), but they only managed to get 10 seconds up the road before being caught. Not to be deterred, Voigt was once again on the attack shortly afterwards. This time he only had one companion in Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who was also in the initial break attempt, and theirs would prove to be the big break of the day.
As the pair began to build a lead, there was a crash back in the peloton involving Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp), and a number of other riders. Vande Velde was already suffering injuries from his crash on the road to Marseille two days ago, and this second knock proved too much and the American abandoned the race. Surely not the way he wanted to end his final Tour de France.
With 10 points available in the mountains classification, Kadri had a chance to steal the lead in the competition, as he started the day in third in the fight for the polka-dot jersey with five points, after his break on the second day. Voigt seemed happy to let his fellow escapee take the points on the top of the climbs. Aware of the danger, Pierre Rolland (Europcar) went on the attack on the second climb of the day. His challenge was usurped by Kadri’s team-mate Romain Bardet. The Ag2r rider beat Rolland into third spot, allowing Kadri to lead the mountain’s classification by a single point and take the polka-dot jersey for the following day.
As the terrain got tougher, Cannondale took to the front and began to close the gap on the two leaders. Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) was one of several to fall foul of the increase in pace on the Croix de Mounis and was dropped. Greipel, Marcel Kittel and Matt Goss were also dropped. With 94km to go the leading pair were caught, but the sprinters and their teams were still off the back.
Despite the combined efforts of Lotto-Belisol, Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Argos-Shimano struggled to close the gap on the ridge that followed the climb, as Cannondale continued to force the pace up front. After giving chase for more than an hour, they sat up inside the final 40 kilometres. With most of the fast men dispatched, Sagan was easily able to take the intermediate sprint points after 135km.
Former yellow jersey holder and stage 2 winner Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Leopard) decided that this was his time to attack. He was followed by Cyril Gautier (Europcar) and Juan José Oroz (Euskaltel-Euskadi). The trio built a maximum lead of 1:04 minutes, with Bakelants becoming the virtual leader at one stage, as he trailed Impey by just 33 seconds on GC. With the yellow jersey at risk, Orica-GreenEDGE gradually began to commit more riders to Cannondale’s chase and the three escapees were finally caught inside the final three kilometres.
All of Cannondale’s work nearly came undone as Sagan misjudged a corner heading through a roundabout in the finale. The error was soon forgotten, however, as Sagan powered to the finish. The Slovak hid in the slipstream of Degenkolb, before popping out at the last moment and taking victory.