Tour de France stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 7: Le Mans to Châteauroux, 218km

At the back end of a week in which ‘flat’ stages have been anything but, today’s stage to Châteauroux represented a rarity: a transitional stage with a flat profile and a flat finish. That Mark Cavendish claimed his 17th Tour stage in the same town where he earned his first in 2008 came as no surprise. But a heavy crash with less than 40km to go eliminated Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and FDJ’s Rémi Pauriol, and effectively ended any hopes the RadioShack pair of Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer had of a high finish.

Mark Cavendish finishes off a perfect team effort by HTC-Highroad to take his second win of this year's Tour, and 17th overall (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

A slow and uneventful start

Boonen was forced to withdraw after being injured in a crash two days ago (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

After six days largely spent skirting the western and northern coastlines of France, the race turned inland in readiness for the first mountain stage tomorrow. The previous two days had been unexpectedly tough, so it was not surprising that the peloton were content to crank the pace down a notch in the early stages, averaging a leisurely 38kph over the first two hours in the knowledge that the intermediate sprint would not arrive until 25.5km from the finish.

A four-man break comprising FDJ’s Mickaël Delage and Gianni MeersmanSébastien Talabardon (Saur-Sojasun) and Pablo Urtasun (Euskaltel-Euskadi) formed straight after the start. They built up a lead of 8:10 before HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervélo combined at the front of the peloton and settled in for the long chase.

In fact, the first 180km was positively dull as the peloton controlled the gap as they pleased. The pace in the third hour slowed to 35.5kph, and to a positively lethargic 33kph in the fourth. The only event of note was the retirement of Quick Step team leader Tom Boonen, who climbed off after 90km, unable to continue after his injuries sustained in one of the multiple crashes on stage five.

The race is transformed in an instant

And then, with 38km to go, the race was suddenly thrown into chaos. A small crash had already occurred 13km earlier when a mass pile-up involving at least 20 riders occurred in the middle of the peloton. It left Wiggins sitting dazed in the middle of the road, with Pauriol on the verge on one side, Horner on the other, and various others scattered across the road. From the way Wiggins was gingerly clutching his shoulder the diagnosis of a collarbone injury was an easy one to make, and the Dauphiné winner was soon taken off in an ambulance, his race run. Pauriol too, was also forced to abandon with a suspected broken collarbone, and although Horner was eventually able to remount having suffered concussion and a broken nose he finished dead last, lost nearly 13 minutes and must be considered doubtful to continue.

Wiggins's Tour came to an abrupt end

The crash left the peloton split in two, with the front group of about 80 riders continuing to hunt down the breakaway. After the break had swept up the major points, Cavendish easily won the best-of-the-rest sprint for fifth spot. Despite a brief flurry of resistance, the four leaders were easily swept up 12km from the finish and there then followed a textbook finish from the HTC-Highroad lead-out train. With all nine men working together to keep the pace high and control the pace-line, they flew into Châteauroux. One by one the white shirts peeled off the front to pass the baton to their next teammate. It was a perfect and admirable display of teamwork, even if there was an air of inevitability to it all.

Sure enough, Mark Renshaw took Cavendish to 200 metres and the Manxman did the rest to register his 17th win on the same finish on which he recorded his first three years ago. Even though former HTC teammate André Greipel put in an enormous effort – starting his sprint from the back of the group in an attempt to catch everyone by surprise and even nosing ahead at the 150m board – Cavendish easily overhauled him with his later kick, winning by a full bike length. Last year’s green jersey winner Alessandro Petacchi also opened up his sprint relatively late, and just nipped ahead of the tiring Greipel on the line to take second.

At the finish, Cavendish waited for each of his teammates to cross the line before celebrating with all of them. He lavished praise on the team for delivering him to victory:

It’s a very special day for me. It was here where I won my first stage and so it’s a very sentimental moment. I have to thank the guys for all their work today. It was a hard windy day, and the guys rode hard for me all the way through. They were marvellous.

The Tour is the biggest race, I love it more than any other, and I really wanted to do the same today as I did three years ago. It was an amazing lead-out, I didn’t have to do anything and I’m really proud of them all.

He was also genuinely disappointed when he was told the news about Wiggins:

I’m gutted for him, really gutted for him. We could have bought home the green and yellow jersey. I’ve never seen him in such good form.

Yellow jersey Thor Hushovd finished a comfortable seventh to retain his one-second lead over Cadel Evans. The Norwegian is the only man to finish in the top ten on all seven stages, a testament to his all-round ability, but he conceded that tomorrow would be his last day in the maillot jaune:

We did everything we could to respect this [yellow] jersey. It’s a fight every day at the Tour de France. Everybody is getting tired physically but also tired of this stressful racing.

This was certainly a different week to what I’m used to at the Tour. Wearing the yellow jersey for five days makes it feel like it’s ‘mission accomplished’. This, plus the win in the team time trial made it a perfect week. All I need is a stage victory.

The first week of the Tour is always nervous but this year the weather made it even more so, especially the wind. Everyone wants to be at the front and that’s what causes the falls.

Tomorrow we will not defend the yellow jersey because I know that I cannot follow the best at Super-Besse. It’s time for others to take over and it’s now time for the favourites for the overall to step up.

After the celebrations surrounding his first Tour win yesterday, his compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen lost 3:06 as a result of the crash, as did white jersey Geraint Thomas on a day when the sky fell in for Sky, sending both tumbling down the young rider classification. Without Wiggins, Sky will now be forced to regroup in search of stage wins.

ITV’s Ned Boulting caught up with Wiggins after he had been discharged from hospital. He told him:

Everyone was just jostling for the front. When you’ve got 200 riders trying to stay in the front on small roads like that it was always going to happen. But that’s cycling.

The green jersey also changed hands, with José Joaquín Rojas taking over from Philippe Gilbert. Cavendish gained 56 points, 32 more than Rojas, to catapult himself into contention, although there will now not be another flat stage until after Monday’s rest day, after which there will be two back-to-back en route to the Pyrenees.

In the overall classification, the top five remain unchanged, with everyone behind them moving up thanks to Wiggins, Thomas and Boasson Hagen’s misfortune as more than half the peloton – including GC men Levi Leipheimer, Ryder Hesjedal and Roman Kreuziger – lost three minutes or more.

Stage 8 preview

Saturday’s stage takes the peloton over its first medium mountain stage of this year’s race, with a finish at the ski resort of Super-Besse in the Massif Central. There are just two minor climbs in the first 120km – with the intermediate sprint in between – which should present few problems for the riders. The serious action will all occur in the final 30km. The 6.2km, 6.2% ascent of the Col de la Croix Saint-Robert will certainly see the peloton split. And the concluding third-category climb to Super Besse is actually two climbs in one – a 3.5km section averaging 5%, followed by a short downhill and flat section, and then a final 1.5km climb which averages 7.6%. It is sure to invite attacks from both the true climbers and possibly puncheurs such as Gilbert and Voeckler. The general classification contenders will mostly be happy to neutralise racing among themselves, but will be wary of an attack from either Alberto Contador or Samuel Sánchez, both of whom need to recover lost time.

This could also be a good opportunity for a breakaway winner, with the GC men happy not to take on the burden of defending the yellow jersey so early in the race. And with no prospect of points at the finish to worry about, expect all the green jersey contenders to target the intermediate sprint. The last 600 metres or so before the line is uphill, but it is preceded by a long downhill run which will help the lead-out trains get themselves organised. Rojas, Gilbert, Boasson Hagen and Hushovd are perhaps better suited to this sprint than Cavendish, Farrar and Greipel.

Stage 7 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 5:38:53

2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) same time

3. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

4. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. William Bonnet (FDJ) s/t

General classification:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 28:29:27

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:01

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:04

4. David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:08

5. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:10

6. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:12

7. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:12

8. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) +0:13

9. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:13

10. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +0:20

Points classification:

1. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 167 pts

2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 156

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 150

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 130

5. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) 99

Mountains classification:

1. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) 4 pts

2. Anthony Roux (FDJ) 3

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) 2

4. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 1

5. Mickaël Delage (FDJ) 1

Links: Tour de France official

Tour de France recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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