Chris Froome sits in a strong position ahead of the Pyrenees after stage seven of the Tour de France.
The Team Sky Brit had a comfortable day despite the high pace in the medium mountains and, alongside team-mate Richie Porte, sits in a strong position overall ahead of the first mountain-top finish of the race on Saturday – eight seconds back on the yellow jersey.
Edvald Boasson Hagen continued his consistent form in the sprints to place fifth into Albi in a difficult bunch kick which saw the Norwegian boxed in on the home straight. A fast finish from Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE) meant Boasson Hagen remained a tantalising two seconds off the maillot jaune.
The transition stage saw an intense fight between the sprinters’ teams as Cannondale stamped their authority on the day to set up Peter Sagan.
The Slovakian not only claimed maximum points at the day’s intermediate sprint but continued his momentum to the finish where he captured victory, fending off John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) and Daniele Bennati (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) respectively.
Froome and Team Sky occupied a prominent position throughout the stage with Pete Kennaugh and Kanstantsin Siutsou also finishing on the right side of a significant split in the bunch.
Ready to climb
After the finish Froome reflected on a tough stage and looked ahead to Saturday and the first big mountain showdown.
“I think most of us knew it was going to come down to a bunch sprint but we didn’t expect Cannondale to take it up the way they did," he admitted. "That made the race a bit harder but we were safe in the front with a few other guys. We’re glad to get to the finish and we’re a day closer to the mountains now.
“It will definitely be a fight on the climb tomorrow up to the finish. This is what we’ve trained for and we’re looking forward to putting it to good use now. I think we’ve got a well-established style of racing already. I don’t see us doing anything differently. Obviously in the heat of the race you’ve got to be able to make calls within those last few kilometres I’m sure it’s going to come down to that tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.”
With the first week of racing now in the books Team Principal Sir Dave Brailsford admitted he is also excited to get into the more selective mountain stages.
He said: "I think everybody will be looking at each other tomorrow but we’ve come to the Tour to race and it’s pretty exciting. Everybody’s ready and everybody’s looking forward to it – I know the guys are looking forward to it, for sure. The first real mountain stage is a bit like the first round in boxing – you go in and test your partner to see how his fitness is and I’m sure there will be a bit of sparring tomorrow.
"It’s hard to judge anybody’s form heading into it and you can only truly assess somebody in the mountains once you get there. To try and speculate isn’t going to work so we’ll wait and see where everybody’s at tomorrow."
Friday’s 205.5km test was the last before the race entered the Pyrenees and looked set to produce an intriguing battle between attackers and sprinters.
Determined to get up the road, Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Leopard) finally forged clear with Blel Kadri (AG2R-La Mondiale) in tow as a crash disrupted the progress of the peloton. Boasson Hagen was one of the riders who went down as the road was blocked temporarily before re-mounting.
The second category Col de la Croix de Mounis proved to be decisive as the race split into three groups out on the road.
With Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step), Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) all distanced Cannondale arrived on the front to string things out. In behind the two groups finally combined forces with the deficit initially sitting at 2:45.
Sagan was able to comfortably take maximum points at the intermediate sprint before a counter-attack from the pack as former leader Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Leopard), Juan Jose Oroz (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Cyril Gautier (Europcar) went up the road.
As the climbs continued the spirits in the second group were finally broken and the chase was finally halted by a resigned Lotto-Belisol.
The second break was finally reeled in with 3km to go and Sagan made no mistake in rewarding his team’s hard work at the finish.