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Having been given a perfect lead-out, Kristoff narrowly held off a fast-finishing Sagan in the reduced bunch sprint on stage 7 of the Tour of California; Van Poppel was third and Alaphilippe retained the lead

Photo: Sirotti

ALEXANDER KRISTOFF

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DANNY VAN POPPEL

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DECEUNINCK - QUICK-STEP

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JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE

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KATUSHA ALPECIN

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PETER SAGAN

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TOUR OF CALIFORNIA

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22.05.2016 @ 00:52 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) finally got the victory that he has been chasing the entire week when he came out on top in the hilly stage 7 of the Tour of California. Having survived the hilly course, he was given the perfect lead-out by Michael Mørkøv and then narrowly held Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) off in a photo finish, with Danny Van Poppel (Sky) beig a distant third. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) retained the lead on the eve of the final stage.

 

In recent years, Alexander Kristoff has followed the same schedule year after year, refusing to change a winning formula. In the second half of May, he has usually been winning lots of stages in his home race, the Tour of Norway.

 

For the 2016 season, however, the Katusha management decided that Kristoff had to skip his home event. With the team having sponsorship interests in the USA, they were set to make their debut at the Tour of California and they wanted to line up one of their main riders. Kristoff was asked to travel across the Atlantic, hoping to use the race to work with his lead-out train for the Tour de France.

 

After his win at the recent Rund um den Finanzplatz, Kristoff was hoping to continue his momentum in the USA but things didn’t work in the first stages. He faded dramatically in the sprint on the first stage and in stage 2 he was left frustrated as his winning sprint only allowed him to finish third on the stage.

 

After several GC days, Kristoff had two final chances in the weekend and today things finally came together as he emerged as the fastest in the reduced bunch sprint on stage 7. Proving that he climbs really well, he made it into the small group that sprinted for the win and after great work from his team he turned out to be the fastest.

 

However, the hero of the day was world champion Peter Sagan. The Slovakian was on the attack all day and spent 40km in a solo move before opting to wait for the peloton. He had less than 25km to recover for the sprint but still managed to take second in a photo finish.

 

After yesterday’s time trial, it was time for the final climbing challenge of the race in stage 7 which brought the riders over 175.5km around Santa Rosa. The course included one category 1, two category 2 and three category 3 climbs. Five of them came in the first half and the final challenge was a category 2 climb that summited with 52.5km to go. From there, it was mainly descending and flat and the stage ended with three laps of a 4km circuit in downtown Santa Rosa.

 

Light rain was falling when the riders gathered for the start in Santa Rosa. All riders that finished yesterday’s stage were present as they headed out for their neutral ride and they would get the stage off to a brutally fast opening phase.

 

Attacks kept flying in the first part of the race and in this hectic phase, a Cannondale rider hit the ground on the slippery roads. No one had managed to get clear as they got to the top of the first climb where Peter Stetina (Trek) led Chris Jones (Unitedhealthcare) and Rob Squire (Holowesko) acoss the line.

 

Squire continued his attack and was joined by Danilo Wyss, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Daniel Teklehaimanot (Dimension Data) and Michael Gogl (Tinkoff). Robin Carpenter (Holowesko) tried to bridge the 30-second gap to the quintet but never made the junction.

 

The peloton was reluctant to let the strong group ride away and so they kept the gap at around 30 seconds. That allowed Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Johantan Restrepo (Katusha), Toms Skujins (Cannondale), Jasper Stuyven (Trek), Caleb Fairly (Giant-Alpecin), Mike Teunissen (LottoNL-Jumbo), Krists Neilands (Axeon), Evan Huffman and Danny Pate (Rally) to bridge the gap and suddenly 14 riders had gathered in front. The peloton slowed down and so the gap had gone out to two minutes by the time Huffman beat Skujins, Neilands, Van Avermaet and Sagan in the second KOM sprint.

 

When they hit the third climb, BMC tried to put Julian Alaphilippe under pressure and the Frenchman was forced to respond by joining a five-rider break. They failed to get clear but when Huffman beat Skujins and Pate in the KOM sprint, the gap was reduced to just 49 seconds.

 

Rohan Dennis (BMC) and Petr Vakoc (Etixx-QuickStep) attacked from the peloton and managed to make it across to the leaders who were now just 30 seconds ahead of a small group with Alahphilppe. The peloton was at 1.45 when Sagan beat Van Avermaet and Restrepo in the fourth KOM sprint.

 

The Alaphlippe group which included the likes of Samuel Sanchez (BMC), Tao Geoghegan-Hart (Axeon) and Travis McCabe (Holowesko), caught the leaders before the first intermediate sprint where Sagan beat Sanchez, Van Avermaet and Squire. However, there was no cooperation in the new big lead group and so the peloton was approaching from behind, reducing the gap to just 20 seconds.

 

Before the junction was made, Sagan, Van Avermaet, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Neilands and Squire surged clear and Javier Megias (Novo Nordisk) was quick to bridge the gap when it was just 15 seconds. Moments later, Bennett beat Squire and Neilands in the fifth KOM sprint.

 

The gap quickly went out to 1.25 after 100km of very fast racing and after a small regrouping took place, it was a reduced peloton that gathered behind the strong sextet. Bryan Coquard was one of the few sprinters to have made the selection and so Direct Energie quickly took control

 

With 67km to go, the gap was only 1.05 and it was still Direct Energie working on the front, with Romain Sicard and Antoine Duchesne being very active. Maximilano Richeze was working for Etixx-QuickStep and they kept the situation firmly under control.

 

With 63km to go, Sagan decided that he was better off by riding alone and so the Slovakian made a strong solo move. His companions reacted too late and even though Bennett tried to jump across, it was impossible to get back to the world champion who quickly got an advantage of 20 seconds. In the process, he won the final intermediate sprint while Van Avermaet and Megias picked up the remaining points.

 

Sagan hit the final climb with a 40-second advantage over his five chasers while the peloton was 1.15. Richeze had disappeared from the front and it was Direct Energie doing all the work, most notably with a very strong Sicard.

 

Bennett tried to use the climb to get back to Sagan and rode hard on the front, distancing Megias in the process. However, things were turned around when Neilands upped the pace even further as the Kiwi fell behind. Van Avermaet also lost contact twice but he managed to get back just as they reached the top.

 

Sagan crested the summit with an advantage of 52 seconds before Neilands led Squire and Van Avermaet over the top. In the peloton, Samuel Sanchez (BMC) attacked hard as they approached the top and as no one reacted, he got an immediate advantage. At this point, the peloton was 2.10 behind the lone Sagan.

 

With Sanchez up the road, Katusha started to chase hard with Tiago Machado and they quickly brought the Spaniard back. Instead, Lawson Craddock (Cannondale) took off and he quickly joined Bennett.

 

The attacking continued as Tao Geoghegan-Hart (Axein) took off and he was joined by Gianni Moscon (Sky). Dennis also tried to make a move but he was closely marked by Andrew Talansky (Cannondale) and so Moscon and Geoghegan-Hart were brought back too.

 

Direct Energie managed to get things under control and started to chase again as they entered the final 45km. At this point, Sagan was 1.15 ahead of his three chasers, 1.50 ahead of Craddock and Bennett and 2.00 ahead of the peloton.

 

Katusha came to the fore to lend Direct Energie a hand as Machado took some massive turns on the front. Meanwhile, Craddock and Bennett caught the three chasers, meaning that a chase quintet had gathered 1.15 behind Sagan as they entered the final 40km.

 

Sagan hit the final small uncategorized climb with advantages of 1.30 and 2.00 respectively but the chase in the peloton was getting more organized as Jhonatan Restrepo also started to work for Katusha. Even though Craddock was doing a massive job in the chase group, it was impossible to keep the group at bay and so the group was brought back just as they entered the final 30km.

 

Restrepo, Machado, Fabrice Jeandesboz, Sicard and Duchesne were working extremely hard and Richeze also got back to do some work for Etixx-QuickStep. It was everybody against Sagan but the world chamion still had an advantage of 1.40 with 27km to go.

 

The balance tipped and when the gap had dropped to 1.10, Sagan briefly talked to sports director Patxi Vila. The pair decided that it was wise to wait for the peloton and so the world champion was back in the fold with 18km to go.

 

Machado, Restrepo, Richeze, Jeandesboz, Sicard and Duchesne kept riding on the front as they approached the finishing circuit. They led the group across the line for the first time while the sprinters started to position themselves for the final dash to the line. At this point, Jeandesboz ended his work

 

Having crossed the line for the second time, Alexey Vermeulen (LottoNL-Jumbo) launched a strong attack and that spelled the end for Sicard. However, Duchesne, Richeze, Machado and Restrepo reacted strongly to bring the American back almost immediately.

 

Restrepo, Machado and Richeze led the peloton across the line to start the final lap of the 4km circuit, Machado took one final massive turn before Richeze took over. When the Aregntinean swung off, the Katusha train took control, with Jurgen Van den Broeck, Michael Mørkøv and Alexander Kristoff hitting the front.

 

It was a huge fight for Kristoff’s wheel and it was Sagan who won the battle, with John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Danny Van Poppel (Sky) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek) sitting behind the world champion. Van den Broeck led the group under the flamme rouge and he had to fight hard with Feoffrey Curran (Axon) who tried to pass him.

 

With 700m to go, Mørkøv hit the front and hesitated for a moment. However, none of the sprinters had any kind of lead-out so no one tried to pass the Dane. Hence, Mørkøv could do the leader and deliver Kristoff in the perfect position on the front.

 

Kristoff launched his sprint and easily rode away from most of the fast guys. However, Sagan stayed glued to his wheel and as they approached the line, the Slovakian tried to come around. It became a very close battle but the world champion ran out of metres and had to settle for second. Van Poppel took third.

 

Alaphilippe finished safely in the bunch and so kept his 16-second advantage over Dennis. He now just needs to get safely through the final stage which is a completely flat affair around the city of Sacramento. The stage ends with three laps of a flat 3.5km circuit in the city centre where the sprinters are expected to battle it out.

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