This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Christopher Froome (Sky) was the winner of the first mountaintop finish of the 2012 Tour de France. He was the only one who could match and beat Cadel Evans (BMC) in the brutal final 100 meters of the climb up La Plance des Belles Fille in the seventh stage. Evans was second, with Sky's Bradley Wiggins third.
Fabian Cancellara fought long and hard but had to drop back on the climb. Wiggins thus moved into the overall lead.
Evans is now second at 10 seconds, with Vincenzo Nibali third at 16 seconds, as the top ten was tossed around.
Team Sky drove the ever-smaller field up the new climb in the Tour, with big names dropping along the way, due to either crash-related injuries, mechanicals or inability to stay with the high speed set mainly by Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Froome, Nibali, Wiggins and Evans climb towards the finish
In the end, Froome and Wiggins led the high-powered group with Evans and Nibali into the finale. The Froome-Wiggins combination was a familiar one from the 2011 Vuelta a Espana, and once again Froome showed his climbing abilities. Evans was the first to jump from the group, and only Froome could go with him, and ultimately passed the Australian.
It turned into a classic elimination race, as the high pace at the front on the final climb saw rider after rider falling behind. But even before then, the previous day's crashes took their toll on may riders as the Tour finally entered its first difficult phase.
“It wasn't the plan to go for the stage, it was just keeping Brad up there,” said an overjoyed Froome. “But we came to see the climb previously and I knew what the finish is like. I thought, 'I'm there, I've got the legs, why not give a kick and see what happens?' I gave it a nudge and couldn't believe when Cadel didn't follow my wheel."
Coming into the finale, he knew what to expect: “I was expecting someone to surge on that flat bit, and Cadel came through. I jumped onto his wheel. I could see him slowly hurting as the climb got steeper. that was fantastic for us. Having Bradley right there 2 seconds behind, We couldn't ask for more. It puts the team in a fantastic position going forward.
“I'm speechless. That was a dream come true. I never thought of winning a stage here. I'm chuffed to bits.”
Tour de France stage 7 highlights (Courtesy ASO)
A reduced field
There were 12 fewer riders at the start of the seventh stage, four of them having abandoned during Friday's stage. All eight DNF's today were victims of the many crashes in the sixth stage, including Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal. They were soon enough joined by Anthony Delaplace of Saur-Sojasun.
About 20 km into the stage, an escape group formed and got away: Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Christophe Riblon (AG2R), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Dmitriy Fofonov (Astana), Martin Velits (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), and Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEdge). The gap reached a maximum of about six minutes before settling in at around five and a half minutes.
The only excitement in the first half of the stage came at the intermediate sprint. Orica-GreenEdge looked to determined to take the remaining points for Matt Goss, but the team seemed to have started its jump far too early. In the end, Peter Sagan of Liquigas sailed on by the Australian to add to his lead.
Sky high: Wiggins hugs Froome in celebration after Froome took the stage and Wiggins took the yellow
The first two climbs of the day – the Col de Grosse Pierre and the Col du Mont de Fourche (both category three) - did nothing at all. The seven leaders rolled right over them, although on the approach to the latter, Sanchez complained about the fans running alongside.
The gap finally started coming down for good with about 40 km – and the final category one climb – to go. As the road went up and the gap went down, more and more sprinters and injured riders fell back.
The Planche de Belles Filles was an unknown factor, as it was making its Tour debut. The 5.9km closing climb featured an average gradient of 8.5 percent, with sections up to 13 percent, and the final 100 meters at 14 percent.
Garmin was suffering the loss of three riders, with others having dropped back, but those remaining riders spent much time at the front of the field. They were finally replaced by Bosson Hagen, who led the capture of Gautier, the first rider to fall out of the lead group.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) suffered a mechanical with about 11km to go, and had to race hard to try and catch the field again. Adam Hansen was there to help him, but it was a long haul. Alejandro Valverde punctured shortly thereafter, so another top rider had dropped out of the main field.
Boasson Hagen put up such a speed that the field split. And only moments after starting the final climb, the lead group was caught. But the brutal pace and the new climb did their work, as more and more riders suffered, including Robert Gesink (Rabobank), Philippe Gilbert (BMC) ad Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
With five km still to climb, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) had to bid farewell to the lead group, the overall lead and his yellow jersey. Only a small group went into the final four km – but neither Fränk Schleck nor Andreas Klöden was among them.
In there, though were Wiggins, Evans, Nibali, Boasson Hagen, Froome, Richie Porte, Rein Taramaae and Denis Menchov.
Froome, who proved himself in last year's Vuelta a Espana, took over from Boasson Hagen and pulled the increasingly smaller group up the final climb. Even Menchov fell back with less than two km to go.
Froome, Wiggins, Evans, Nibali and Taaramae went together under the flamme rouge. Evans moved into the lead with 400 m to go and the sprint started. Taaramae was dropped it was Froome who made his move on the 14% gradient to take the win, with Evans taking second and Wiggins third.
Can Wiggins keep the jersey all the way to Paris?