Lavaur (France), September 4: The brilliant Wout van Aert took a second win of the Tour de France after an explosive Stage 7 saw the peloton blown apart from the outset and Peter Sagan move back into the green jersey.
Van Aert, the in-form Belgian, led home a select lead group of race favourites to deliver Jumbo-Visma's third win of the race as Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) became the big casualty in the battle for yellow.
Tour debutant Pogacar was dropped in the crosswinds during a frenetic conclusion to an already highly combative 168km stage, the 21-year-old crossing the line over a minute down to plummet out of the top 10 and lose the white jersey.
Spain's Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren), Ecuador's Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), Australia's Richie Porte and his Trek-Segafredo teammate Bauke Mollema of the Netherlands were all caught out after the expected winds wreaked havoc in the peloton, while Colombia's Dani Martinez (EF Pro Cycling) shipped the best part of 15 minutes.
Britain's Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) successfully negotiated the accelerations and echelons to retain the yellow jersey by three seconds on Slovenia's Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) as Frenchman Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) moved up to third place at nine seconds after what proved to be the most captivating stage of the race so far.
On a day that looked destined for the sprinters, the majority of the peloton's fast men were shelled out the back of the peloton inside the opening 10km of the race by some ferocious tempo-setting by the well-drilled Bora-Hansgrohe team of Sagan, sniffing out an opportunity in the heat of southern France.
With Ireland's Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) among those caught out by the early fireworks, Sagan was able to move back into the virtual green jersey in the intermediate sprint.
A brief foray off the front from Belgium's Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) never looked likely to stick, and when the much-vaunted vent d'Autan blew up a storm inside the final 35 kilometres, what was left of the peloton split in two on the approach into Lavaur.
Sagan was unable to build on the hard work done by his Bora teammates, the misfiring Slovakian disappointing in 13th place - enough, however, to see him return to the top of the green jersey standings with a slender lead of nine points over Bennett.
But with his second stage win of the race, both riders may well be looking over their shoulders to van Aert, who has now risen to third place in that classification - proof that the 26-year-old's thrilling consistency and superior kick.
Green, however, may prove a distraction for Jumbo-Visma and Van Aert will be back on domestique duty for teammates Roglic and fifth-place Dumoulin on Saturday as the race enters the Pyrenees for the first of two mountain stages that should test the yellow jersey credentials of Yates at the end of the first week of racing.
EXPLOSIVE START AFTER BORA DROP THE BOMB
All talk of the famous vent d'Autan blowing strong in the final third of the stage proved something of a red herring as Bora-Hansgrohe tore up the script - and the hopes of most of the sprinters - before the peloton had even passed under the stunning Millau viaduct.
Benoit Cosnerfroy (Ag2R-La Mondiale) just about managed to hold on to pick up the maximum king of the mountain points going over the first climb of the day, the Cat.3 Cote de Luzencon, before the seven-strong Bora train swept past leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.
The fast tempo on the exposed, rolling roads of the Aveyron saw sprinters Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates), Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Pro Cycling) and Elia Viviani (Cofidis) all shelled out the back inside the opening 10 kilometres.
Most crucially, the green jersey of Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) found himself the wrong side of the split as Bora threw down the hammer in a bid to restore their man Sagan to the top of the points classification.
The Bennett chase group came within a whisker of bridging over with 150km remaining - but, like Tantalus in thwarted pursuit of forbidden fruit, the prize remained cruelly out of the Irishman's reach.
Joining Bennett in this frustrated chase group was the Dauphine winner Martinez, whose GC travails continued as the gap gradually stretched to over five minutes, with the sprinter gruppetto even further in arrears, settling in for a day battling the time-cut.
With Bennett out of the picture, Sagan was able to move back into the virtual green jersey despite being beaten by Italy's Matteo Trentin in the intermediate sprint at Saint-Servin-sur-Rance. The 17 points put Sagan five points clear of Bennett in the virtual standings - with more points still up for grabs at the finish.
Bora continued to drive the pace on the long, but gentle Col de Peyronnenc, driving a nail into Irishman Bennett's coffin in the hope of delivering Sagan to his first win in over a year.
Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt zipped clear ahead of the summit to take the two KOM points. De Gendt then kicked on in an ambitious bid to turn round the fortunes of Lotto Soudal, whose sprinter Ewan, the Stage 3 winner, was out of the picture.
Despite his best efforts, De Gendt never saw his lead increase to much more than 45 seconds as the Ineos Grenadiers soon came to the front after the Cat.4 Cote de Paulhe ahead of the expected winds on the run into the finish.
De Gendt's flurry off the front was terminated shortly after the riders passed through Castres - just as the main pack hit the cross-tailwind with 35km remaining.
If the early narrative of the stage was about the green jersey, the focus now shifted to yellow as Ineos strung out the pack almost instantly creating numerous splits. Jumbo-Visma remained attentive to the threat, as did the yellow jersey of Adam Yates, while Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) contributed to the hurt on the front.
Ineos' hard work took a blow when their Ecuadorian rider Carapaz picked up a puncture which saw him dropped to the chase group that contained both Pogacar and Landa after both riders had been earlier waylaid by respective mechanicals and crashes as the race passed through Castres.
With Trentin dropped, Sagan's chances of a first win in 14 months looked more likely - although he would face opposition from van Aert and a French contingent that included Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Hugo Hofstetter (Israel Start-Up Nation). Belgian's Jasper Stuyven was also there for Trek-Segafredo, whose GC riders Porte and Mollema had missed the split.
Looking to heap the pressure on the distanced riders, Thibaut Pinot's Groupama-FDJ did the lion's share of pacing alongside Miguel Angel Lopez's Astana and the ever-present Jumbo-Visma on the approach into Lavaur.
It was Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen (NTT Pro Cycling) who opened up the sprint with Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) right on his wheel. But after Alaphilippe bumped into Stuyven, the dynamic changed as van Aert powered through to add a second Tour stage win to victories in Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo and the Dauphine since the restart.
Pogacar led the chasers over 1'21" in arrears while the Bennett group eventually crossed the line a whopping 14'32" down, with a final gruppetto containing the remaining sprinters another minute or so back.
With Pogacar dropping to 16th in the overall standings, Colombia's Egan Bernal, the defending champion from the Ineos Grenadiers takes over the white jersey ahead of two stages in the Pyrenees.
Saturday's short but sharp 141km Stage 8 features three climbs including the Col de Peyresourde ahead of a downhill finish into Loudenvielle. All eyes will be on Roglic to add his own second stage win following teammate van Aert's heroics on Friday - and with it, the yellow jersey.
All the LIVE action from Stage 8 - Cazères-Sur-Garonne to Loudenvielle of Tour de France can be watched on Eurosport and Eurosport HD from 05:00 PM IST onward on September 5, 2020.