Slovakian champion Peter Sagan claimed his third Tour de France victory from the sixth stage Friday as a number of yellow jersey contenders narrowly escaped crashing out of the race.
A total of three accidents took place on the 207.5 km ride from Epernay to Metz, where race debutant Sagan powered past flagging German Andre Greipel of Lotto in the final metres to add to his wins on the first and third stages. "I'm very happy to have won today. Yesterday I was a little unlucky, today I was lucky," said Sagan, who failed to contend Thursday's sprint after he was caught up in a crash around 3 km from the line. "Everything went well. I decided to take Greipel's wheel because I knew that if I did that no one would be able to pass me."
It was a reduced peloton, however, that rode into the 700 metre home straight after the day's biggest crash, around 26 km from the finish, delayed dozens of riders and led to at least three abandons. Race leader Fabian Cancellara, wearing the yellow jersey since winning the opening prologue last Saturday, realised only too late that his RadioShack team leader Frank Schleck had been among those delayed by the chaos. "We found out we had one rider missing and that was Frank, but already it was too late," said Cancellara, who retained his 7sec lead over Britain's Bradley Wiggins who is the main challenger to defending champion Cadel Evans, in seventh 10s further back.
A peloton of around 50 riders, which included most of the overall favourites including Evans and Wiggins but not world road race champion Mark Cavendish, a favourite for the stage win, forged on regardless. Others, like American Tom Danielson and Davide Vigano of Italy, were in no rush to resume. After sitting or lying on the road in pain, they were forced to pull out due to their injuries.
Cancellara admitted he had a narrow escape. "Right next to me I had Davide Vigano and I could feel it when he went down next to me," added the Swiss. "I had to put one leg on the ground and was just happy not to go down at 70km/h."
Among the big losers were Luxembourg's Frank Schleck (RadioShack), Thomas Voeckler of France (Europcar), Italy's Michele Scarponi (Lampre) and Canada's Giro d'Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin). All were delayed by the crash and left with a two-minute deficit to the chasing peloton up the road ahead as they closed in on frontrunners David Zabriskie (Garmin), Davide Malacarne (Europcar), Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank) and Romain Zingle (Cofidis), with Sagan emerging to prevail in the sprint for the
line in Metz. Schleck, a third place finisher last year but an outsider because of his lack of power in the long time trials - of which there are two this year - virtually saw his hopes of challenging come to an end. The Luxembourger finished 2min 09sec off the pace in a group which also included Spain's Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and French hope Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and is now 2:43 off the leading pace.
The finale, meanwhile, saw a reduced group of riders battling to set up their sprinters for the hectic finish after American David Zabriskie (Garmin), the last survivor from an early four-man breakaway, was caught with 1300 metres remaining. Greipel had not been expected to contend a bunch sprint after he suffered a sore shoulder when he was caught in the first two crashes. But after it was announced that British rival Cavendish had been left behind, his Lotto team fired up their engines.
The German looked all set to claim his third win of this year's race, but had the misfortune to run out of steam as Sagan emerged from his wheel in the closing meters.
Stage Six Results
1. Peter Sagan (SVK/LIQ)...4h37min 00sec
2. André Greipel (GER/LTB)…at 0:00s
3. Matthew Goss (AUS/GEC)
4. Kenny van Hummel (NED/VAC)
5. Juan José Haedo (ARG/SAX)
1. Fabian Cancellara (SUI/RSH)...29h22min 36sec
2. Bradley Wiggins (GBR/SKY)…0:07
3. Sylvain Chavanel (FRA/OPQ)…0:07
4. Tejay Van Garderen (USA/BMC)…0:10
5. Denis Menchov (RUS/KAT)…0:13
6. Cadel Evans (AUS/BMC)…0:17
7. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA/LIQ)…0:18
8. Peter Sagan (SVK/LIQ)…0:19
9. Andreas Kloden (GER/RSH)…0:19
10. Maxime Monfort (BEL/RSH)...0:22