AP Sports Writer
FOUGERES, France — Staying in front has meant staying out of trouble so far for Chris Froome at the Tour de France.
After a crash-marred first week of the race, the 2013 champion is exactly in the position he wants to be — healthy and wearing the yellow jersey.
The British rider’s title defense ended early last year, when he fell three times in two days and, battered and bruised, went out of the Tour on stage 5. This year, he has avoided all three big crashes so far after making up his mind to push ahead of any potential dangers.
“Given what happened last year, it was a big goal for me mentally rather than physically to arrive with the attitude that I’m here to ride at the front of the race,” Froome said after Friday’s seventh stage. “We’ve been proactive in doing more work than normal in order to try and stay safe.”
Mark Cavendish won a sprint finish Friday for his 26th career Tour stage victory — his first since 2013 after also crashing out last year. He dedicated his win to his Etixx-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin, who broke a collarbone in a crash in Thursday’s sixth stage, forcing him to withdraw while wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey.
Froome inherited the lead, but did not wear the yellow jersey during stage 7 as a mark of respect for Martin.
“It wasn’t ideal to get the yellow in this way,” Froome said.
With the tough mountain stages still to come — starting with the Pyrenees next week — Froome is in a strong position. He leads two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador by 36 seconds, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali by 1:38 and Nairo Quintana, the 2013 runner-up, by 1:56.
American rider Tejay Van Garderen, a strong climber with a best overall Tour finish of fifth place, is shaping up as a dangerous outsider.
“He’s ridden really well this first week,” Froome said. “Quintana’s lost a lot of time already, that’s a big blow for him, but I do expect him to be up there in the mountains.”
Meanwhile, the race was hit by its first doping case as Italian rider Luca Paolini was thrown out after testing positive for cocaine on July 7, the day of the fourth stage, Cycling’s governing body said.
The Katusha rider can request a “B” sample to be tested. In accordance with UCI anti-doping rules, Paolini has been provisionally suspended. In March, the one-day classics specialist posted his first victory in nearly two years to win Gent-Wevelgem.
On a roasting hot afternoon, Cavendish timed his attack to perfection to catch German sprinter Andre Greipel near the line. Only Eddy Merckx with 34 stage wins and Bernard Hinault with 28 have won more Tour stages than Cavendish.
“I’m really happy now, two years after my last podium,” Cavendish said. “I just waited a little longer so I could use my speed at the end.”
Stage 7 started from Livarot — a town in the Normandy region — and ended 190.5 kilometers (118 miles) later in Fougeres, nestled in the Brittany region.
Contador fell off his bike before the start line, but got back on to take the start and was unharmed.
Within two minutes of the stage start, five riders broke away.
Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot, wearing the best climber’s polka dot jersey, was joined by Frenchmen Anthony Delaplace and Brice Feillu, Croatian Kristjian Durasek and Spaniard Luis Angel Mate. After those five were caught, the peloton eased up and let the sprinters go.
“Everyone started to relax just a little bit more. It’s a nice feeling actually; it’s been such a crazy week,” Froome said. “It was amazing to look around to see how many people are wearing bandages and bleeding through their shorts.”
Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff attacked first and then Greipel surged past him on the left.
But this time Cavendish burst through some 50 meters from the line to deny Greipel a third stage win.
Saturday’s eighth stage, which stays in Brittany, is a mostly flat 181.5-kilometer (112.5-mile) trek starting from Rennes and finishing with a short climb up Mur de Bretagne.
“It could be for sprinters or someone more punchy,” Froome said. “To be honest I don’t really know the Mur de Bretagne, I’m going to be doing a bit of studying tonight.”