Sylvain Chavanel of France crosses the finish line to win the seventh stage of the Tour de France. ((Larent Rebours/Associated Press) )

Sylvain Chavanel recaptured the Tour de France's lead on Saturday by winning the hot and humid seventh stage as the main title contenders bided their time in anticipation of the upcoming Alpine climbs.

Chavanel raised a fist in joy as he completed the 165.5-kilometre run from Tournus to Station des Rousses that featured six low- to mid-grade climbs, crossing in four hours 22 minutes 52 seconds. The Quick Step rider also won the second stage.

Victoria native Ryder Hesjedal improved to third overall -- one minute 32 seconds behind Chavanel -- with an eighth-place finish.

"The team took care of me really well all day," said Hesjedal. "I am really pleased with my Tour so far and we will see what tomorrow brings."

Toronto's Michael Barry sits 88th after placing 124th in the seventh stage.

The main title favourites finished 1:47 back of Chavanel, including 2009 winner Alberto Contador of Spain, who was 13th, and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong of the United States in 16th.

Overall, Chavanel was leading two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia by 1:25. Hesjedal was third followed by last year's runner-up, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, 1:55 behind, with Contador sixth: 2:26 back. Armstrong was 14th, 3:16 behind Chavanel.

"I had legs of fire today. ... These are the types of climb that suit me," Chavanel said. "I'm going to savour it."

Several pre-race favourites, including Armstrong, said the stage's climbs were deceptively tough and that the heat added to the agony.

"Suffered, I think everybody did. It was just so incredibly hot and humid," the 38-year-old Texan said.

Cancellara staggers

Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, who struggled in the final climb and lagged a staggering 14:12 back, lost the yellow jersey to Chavanel. The Frenchman began the stage fifth, 1:01 behind Cancellara.

They are the only two riders to have worn yellow this Tour: Cancellara won the prologue, Chavanel took the coveted shirt with a breakaway win Monday and then the Swiss time trial specialist recovered it a day later.

A staffer from Chavanel's QuickStep team squirted him with water to cool him down in the searing heat as he scaled solo the mid-grade Lamoura pass into the Les Rousses ski station, the last climb, baring his teeth as he pedaled.

Armstrong kept toward the front of the main group of contenders on the final ascent, with Contador shadowing him.

It was a "tough day ..." Armstrong said. "A climb like this, which is 3 to 5 per cent, is always hard. It's high speed and it's hard to [pull] away, and it's hard to sit on the wheel. Not my favourite.

"I tried to stay up near the front [of the pack], to be honest."

None of the main contenders -- including Evans or Bradley Wiggins of Britain, who was fourth last year -- attempted to attack.

Rafael Valls Ferri of Spain was second, 57 seconds behind Chavanel, and countryman Juan Manuel Garate was third, 1:27 back.

After the stage, a downpour sent rain and marble-sized hail onto thousands of fans who lined the route, and civil security teams escorted dozens of fans to shelter after their shuttle bus couldn't get through a post-race traffic jam.

Got his revenge

Chavanel said he got his "revenge" after losing the yellow jersey on the cobblestones Tuesday -- when Armstrong also lost crucial time in the title chase because he had to change a flat tire.

The Frenchman said the next stage could threaten his hold on the jersey.

"The big names -- Contador, Schleck, Evans -- they're going to express themselves tomorrow," Chavanel said. "I'm going to work to limit the damage. I'm going to give it all I have."

The race enters the Alps on Sunday with a 189-kilometre jaunt that includes two very difficult climbs and features an uphill finish.

"The truth will come out tomorrow," Evans said, speaking on French TV.