Perseverance pays off as Sagan takes seventh stage
Tour’s main men conserve energy for tests ahead
The pack of riders on its way during the 205.5 km seventh stage of the centenary Tour de France cycling race from Montpellier to Albi yesterday. Photograph: Eric Gaillard/Reuters
Peter Sagan has been a bridesmaid often enough during this year’s Tour de France, but with his sprint rivals flayed on the road to Albi, he played the role of smiling bride to perfection. At the finish the Slovakian pinched himself, as if to make sure the heat was not playing tricks. It was not. He now leads the green jersey race by 94 points; much more of this and it will be a rout not a contest.
Among the peloton, meanwhile, the Tour’s main men bade their time and conserved their legs. Today, though, is their turn in the sun. At some point along the 195-kilometre route from Castres to Ax 3 Domaines the field will be scattered and struggling. The race may yet burst open like a smashed pinata.
All week Chris Froome has insisted that he is in good form. He appeared to back up his words with actions during the second stage, when he surged briefly away from his main rivals. But in the Pyrenees the peaks are higher and the pain deeper. The first true test comes now. The first 130km of today’s eighth stage are flat, save for the fourth category Cote de Saint-Ferreol near the start. But that merely postpones the tension for the hors categorie Col de Pailheres, 15km of sadistic tease and torture up an eight per cent-average gradient. It starts in a lush forest before steepening into a series of sharp zig-zags, like teeth on a chainsaw.
It will take the top riders around 45 minutes to reach the 2,001m summit – the highest climb of this year’s Tour. Then, after a sharp descent, they begin another stiff climb up the first category Ax 3 Domaines – which is where Froome believes the stage will be won.
“It will be a fight on the climb to the finish,” he admitted. “This is what we’ve trained for. We’ve got a pretty established style of racing although in the closing kilometres you’ve got to be able to make decisions quickly.”
Last year on the Tour’s second Saturday, Bradley Wiggins rode into the yellow jersey up the La Planche des Belles Filles, a similar length climb to the Ax 3 Domaines, and kept it. But this time Team Sky’s principal manager, Dave Brailsford, expects sparring, not a knockout.
“Everybody will be looking at each other, but we have come here to race the race,” he predicted.
He would not be drawn on the relative strengths of Froome and his main rival Alberto Contador, however, saying: “It is hard to assess anyone’s form until you see them in the mountains.”