Just because you're alert to the breakaway doesn't mean it's not out to break you. Asked beforehand what was the biggest danger to his green jersey on Stage 7 of the Tour de France, Sam Bennett warned of Peter Sagan getting an early start up the road.
Which is exactly what happened - Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe team combining their brute force and astute tactics to surge to the front inside the first 10km, splitting the peloton and leaving Bennett in the chasing group, though not quite breaking up the race for the green jersey race as much as initially feared.
By the finish of the 168km stage from Millau to Lavaur, Sagan was back in green by just nine points. Looking for his first stage win in any race since last year's Tour he could only manage 13th in the bunch sprint, clearly not helped when he slipped his chain in the process, behind Wout van Aert, a second stage win in the Tour for the Belgian rider and world number one, and a third for his team Team Jumbo-Visma.
Despite that mishap, that finish did earn Sagan another four points, but it would have 50 points had he won the stage, so he now sits back in the green with 138 points, to Bennett's 129 - van Aert also moves into contention on 106. Britain's Adam Yates safely retained his yellow jersey, while Bennett's group eventually finished 14 minutes and 32 seconds back, and he hardly disguised his disappointment at missing the early breakaway, and losing the green jersey won on Wednesday, the first Irish rider to wear it since Seán Kelly in 1989.
“I know the team made such a big effort to get me back the first time, and I was just caught out again,” said Bennett. “So I was just a bit disappointed with myself there, I feel I let them down a little bit. They made such a big effort. The legs were good, but I was riding for the stage, more than watching Bora at the beginning, and that was a bit of a mistake. But I think it was a good tactic on their behalf, they had to get rid of me.
“Until maybe 60km to go, we just kept going, kept the whole group rolling. You never know. But today, I was told to switch focus a little, maybe try to win the stage. So I didn’t look at Bora at the start, and that was a bit of a mistake. We’ll just have to see where the points are over the next few days, and continue what we’re doing, really.”
It means Sagan wins back the green jersey for the 128th time in his career, the Slovak rider also winning green outright seven times. In truth, once in the 95-rider breakaway, boldly constructed on the Côte de Luzençon, the category three climb that came after just 9km, got away Sagan along with six of his eight team mates never let up, Bennett’s quest to stay in touch not helped by the local Massif Central crosswinds, many of which have their own name.
It also became Deceuninck-Quick Step versus Bora-Hansgrohe, as it was Bennett versus Sagan, the problem for Bennett being many of his team mates, including yellow jersey contender Julian Alaphillipe, were also up front.
By the time of the sole intermediate sprint at Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, after 68km, Bennett was already two minutes and 10 seconds behind, and Sagan duly took the needed 17 points when finishing second to Matteo Trentin, putting him in virtual green.
It stayed fast and furious, the 42km in the second hour of racing covered at an average speed of 44.1km/h. From there the distance on Bennett, caught in the group of 38 riders behind, was further stretched out, just over eight minutes going into last 20km, with a third chasing group of 40 riders, including Nicolas Roche, falling even further behind.
That front-riding pace may well have earned Sagan a lot more points at the finish too, had his final sprint not been so badly hampered by a mechanical fault, when his chain fell off: “That’s f***king cycling,” he said.
Roche finished as part of the final group in 154th place, the Team Sunweb rider 15:54 behind, while Dan Martin did manage to get into the first breakaway group early on, before finishing as part of the second group on the day, the Israel Start-Up rider in 72nd place, 1:21 behind.
With two heavy mountain stages in the Pyrenees on Saturday and Sunday, before a rest day on Monday, it will be Tuesday’s stage, one of the last truly fast and flat stages before Paris, before Bennett will have the chance to regain some points back on Sagan. It will likely take a breakaway of some sort, which Sagan will now be extra alert to.