ALBI, France (AP) — Slovakian rider Peter Sagan won the hilly seventh stage of the Tour de France in a sprint finish on Friday to carve open a big lead in his bid to defend the green jersey as top sprinter, and Daryl Impey kept his focus to retain the yellow jersey for another day.
Sagan held off a challenge from John Degenkolb of Germany to clinch his first stage victory in this year's Tour and move 94 points clear in the contest for sprinters. Italian Daniele Bennati finished the stage in third.
"I have to say my team did all the work today, they did an incredible job," the 23-year-old Sagan said through a translator. "They showed that they are perfectly capable." Sagan leads German sprinter Andre Greipel but more crucially is 105 points ahead of his archrival Mark Cavendish — the 2011 green jersey winner — who was dropped on the toughest climb of the day.
"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 category 2 ascent up 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 is also an able climber and tipped by five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault to become a future overall contender providing he sheds some of his sprinters' bulk and trims down.
Meanwhile, Impey began the day as the first South African rider to wear the yellow jersey, but he will likely relinquish it after Saturday's first of two difficult days of climbing in the high mountains of the Pyrenees.
He acknowledged that it was difficult to focus on racing with everything going on back home. "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 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 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 50 kilometers per hour (30 mph) in temperatures again well into the thirties Celsius (above 90 Fahrenheit) for the 205.5-kilometer (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 multi-rider 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 15 tortuous kilometers 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."