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 today, 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 today, 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.
He rolled in more than 40 minutes behind Sagan, who is also 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 will likely relinquish it after Saturday’s first of two difficult days of climbing.
“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 today to show support for me. It was called ‘Impey’s Yellow Friday’ where a lot of people today actually wore something yellow for me.
“That was a great response from South Africa,” he added. “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 is 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 today 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 picked up considerably 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 has hardly 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 in what has been a nervy Tour.
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 like Chris Froome and Alberto Contador are likely to attack Saturday up the famed Col de Pailheres, which winds upward for 9 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.”