ALBI, France – Slovakia’s Peter Sagan won the hilly seventh stage of the Tour de France in a sprint finish Friday, while South Africa’s Daryl Impey kept the yellow jersey for another day before the race heads into the daunting Pyrenees.
Sagan held off John Degenkolb of Germany to capture his first stage victory in this year’s Tour, taking a big lead in his bid to defend the green jersey as top sprinter. Italy’s Daniele Bennati finished the stage in third.
“I have to say my team did all the work (Friday). They did an incredible job,” Sagan said through a translator. “They showed that they are perfectly capable.”
Sagan leads Germany’s Andre Greipel in the sprinters’ race and is way ahead of archrival Mark Cavendish – the 2011 green jersey winner – who was dropped on the day’s toughest climb.
“The idea was to get a few points (Friday), and I admit I got a few more than I thought I would,” Sagan said.
Cavendish wilted on the ascent up Col de la Croix de Mounis.
“Half the peloton were dropped on that climb,” Cavendish said. “It was not a good day for us. It was really difficult.”
He rolled in more than 40 minutes behind Sagan, who also is an able climber and projected by five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault to become an overall contender providing he sheds some of his sprinter’s bulk and trims down.
Impey began the day as the first South African to wear the yellow jersey, but he likely will relinquish it after today’s first of two difficult days of climbing in the high mountains of the Pyrenees.
“I’m not going to lie to you; I’m not used to being in this situation,” Impey said. “A lot of the radio stations and Internet sites had put out a thing (Friday) to show support for me. It was called ‘Impey’s Yellow Friday’ where a lot of people (Friday) actually wore something yellow for me.
“That was a great response from South Africa,” he said. “Then, there was a song they were playing on the radio. It’s ‘Impi’ by Johnny Clegg.”
He leads Norwegian sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen by three seconds overall and his Orica Greenedge teammate Simon Gerrans by five.
None are considered a serious Tour challenger, but Impey was desperate to keep the jersey a little longer.
“An opportunity like this doesn’t come often. We knew (Friday) was probably our last chance,” he said. “There was a moment on the second climb when the pressure was on, but we handled it well.”
The average speed considerably picked up in the fourth hour, jumping up to nearly 30 mph in temperatures again above 90 degrees for the 128-mile trek from Montpellier to Albi.
In fact, there hardly has been a drop of rain so far – perhaps unsurprising given that the race started on the picturesque island of Corsica before jumping over to Nice on the French riviera and then down to Marseille and Montpellier.
Veteran American rider Christian Vande Velde pulled out after being caught up in an early crash – one of several that have marred a nervy start to the 100th edition of the showcase race; there have been several multirider crashes.
On the first stage, there was a big crash close to the end after Tour organizers caused anxiety in the peloton by changing the designated finish line because a team bus was stuck on the line.
The fifth stage featured two separate crashes, the second right on the finish line and the sixth claimed Cavendish among the fallen.
Early into Stage 7, German veteran Jens Voigt got into an early breakaway. But any dreams the 41-year-old Voigt had of becoming the oldest stage winner since Pino Cerami in 1963 melted in the sun.
Race favorites such as Chris Froome and Alberto Contador likely are to attack today up the famed Col de Pailheres, which winds upward for nine tortuous miles at a gradient of eight percent.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the Pyrenees. I think it will help the race to settle down a lot,” Froome said. “It’s been quite a stressful first week.”