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.”
But the South African Daryl Impey, who remains in the yellow jersey for one more night after finishing with the bunch, makes Froome a strong favourite for the rest of the race.
“Chris is going to be hard to beat,” he said. “He has been pretty consistent all year. I really think Froome is going to win this race barring mishaps. Contador is a fighter, and with his climbing ability he is nearly in a league of his own. It will be a great battle but I definitely think Chris will be able to handle himself.”
But the 205.5km seventh stage from Montpellier to Albi went to Sagan – who, after finishing with three second-places and one third in the first five individual stages – deservedly got off the mark by beating John Degenkolb of Argos-Shimano in a bunch sprint. “This victory is for the team,” he said. “After the first crash I didn’t feel very good but I trusted in myself and day by day I’m getting better.”
The foundations of Sagan’s victory were laid 100km in advance of the finish, on the day’s steepest climb, the second category Col de la Croix de Mounis. It was there his Cannondale team drove hard at the front, leaving his sprint rivals far down the road.
It was no great surprise that Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel were dropped; their bodies are built for speed, not scuttling up cols. But the size of the gap did raise eyebrows: soon Greipel was two minutes behind, with Cavendish a further minute down until a recovery thanks to four of his team-mates.
For the past two days Lotto and Omega-Pharma had been chest-out alpha males, eyeing each other suspiciously in the peloton, and scoring a win each in the bunch sprints. Now, though, they were working together: taking turns to drive at the front in a bid to close the gap. But they failed to make a significant dent and with 50km to go they decided to call it a day. Afterwards Cavendish was upbeat, saying: “I was dropped on the climb and there was nothing I could do. But there are still a lot of sprint stages, especially the last one up the Champs Elysees.”
Now it is the turn of the mountain goats. Today’s stage goes from flatlands to foothills to summits. The change in the complexion of the entire race could be as just dramatic.