Peter Sagan spent the first week of the Tour de France in the role of chief bridesmaid but took victory yesterday in Albi after a determined effort from his Cannondale team.
The Slovakian had clocked up three second-place finishes in the opening six stages, but from early on yesterday there seemed little doubt he would cross the line first as his team-mates set a furious pace to leave his green jersey rivals trailing in their wake.
Mark Cavendish was one of several sprinters – along with Thursday’s winner Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, and Matt Goss – dropped on the second of four climbs on the day before giving up the chase in the final 50 kilometres.
As the race heads towards the Pyrenees this weekend, yesterday’s stage and its four categorised climbs favoured Sagan given his superior all-round ability compared to the other sprinters.
But the manner and the extent to which they were left for dead sent out a clear signal from Cannondale that Sagan intends to defend the green jersey he won last year.
“This was a show of how strong we are as a team,” said Sagan, who equated his team’s efforts with a 160km lead-out train.
“All of our riders were committed to one thing and everyone trusts me now and they are prepared to work hard for me because they know that I want to do well.”
John Degenkolb was still there at the finish to at least give Sagan something to think about, but he was comfortably beaten into second ahead of Team Saxo-Tinkoff’s Daniele Bennati.
With his rivals left down the road, Sagan took both the intermediate sprint and the win to open up a huge gap in the points classification, where he has 224 points to Greipel’s 130, with Cavendish on 119.
Cannondale initially appeared to sit up after the intermediate sprint potentially giving Cavendish and company the chance to get back, but the respite did not last long.
“I had said, ‘We’ll pull only until we get to the intermediate sprint and then we’ll take it easy...’ I thought maybe another team would take over and lead through to the finish,” Sagan said.
“My team-mates didn’t understand why. They came to me and said, ‘But we can continue to ride! Why should we sit up now and wait for the sprinters?’
“And then they went back to the front and worked very, very well.”
Cavendish crossed the line in the group 14 minutes and 53 seconds behind Sagan.
“I was dropped on the climb and there was nothing I could do,” he said.