Peter Sagan benefited from a tactical masterpiece from his Cannondale team to win stage seven of the Tour de France and strengthen his grip on the green jersey today.
The Italian squad hit the front of the peloton on the second of the day’s four categorised climbs and forced a fierce pace that saw sprinters Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel all dropped.
That put Sagan in pole position to win on the flat finish into Albi and the Slovak national champion duly delivered, out-sprinting John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) in second and Daniele Bennati (Saxo-Tinkoff) in third.
Sagan also won the day’s intermediate sprint and now leads the points classification by 94 points from second-placed Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), with Cavendish (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) another 11 points further back in third.
Race leader Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE) crossed the line in 12th place to retain the yellow jersey, while Chris Froome (Team Sky) also finished in the main bunch to consolidate seventh in the general classification ahead of two potentially crucial days in the Pyrenees on Saturday and Sunday.
The Briton and his rivals for overall victory were not given an easy day to lead into the mountains, though, after Cannondale blew stage seven apart with a ferocious upping in speed on the slopes of the category-two Col de la Croix de Mounis, which summitted after 94.5km of the 205.5km route.
The climb included slopes of 10 per cent in gradient and although Sagan is able to negotiate such inclines, Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel (Argos-Shimano) were instantly put into difficulty and soon distanced.
By the time the front of the peloton reached the top, Greipel was in a group 1min 40sec back, while Cavendish was in far deeper trouble at around three minutes adrift.
Thanks to the help of his team-mates, he was able to catch back up to Greipel with 90km remaining, triggering a compelling battle between Cannondale on the front of the main bunch and Omega Pharma — Quick-Step, Lotto-Belisol and Argos-Shimano, who were working together on the front of the chase group.
The gap between the two fluctuated around the 2min 30sec mark, but with the chasers failing to make significant inroads and thoughts turning to surviving the mountains stages to follow, Lotto-Belisol gave up with 40km remaining and the other teams followed suit.
Cannondale continued to drive on the peloton and after swallowing up the second of the day’s two breakaways with less than 3km remaining, it was left to Sagan to repay his team-mates’ monumental efforts.
Degenkolb was the first to launch his sprint, but Sagan would not be denied and surged around the German to win by a bike’s length.
Earlier in the day, Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale) had formed the day’s first breakaway alongside Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) and reached the top of the day’s first two climbs first to take over from Pierre Rolland (Europcar) at the top of the mountains classification. (Sky)