Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale has taken his third stage victory in his first ever Tour de France, preventing André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol from becoming the first man since 1999 to win three stages of the race in a row as he passed the German just shy of the line, with Orica-GreenEdge's Matt Goss third.
Today's Stage 6 to Metz once again saw a big crash, this time on a straight section of road some 25 kilometres from the line, with Frank Schleck and Michele Scarponi both losing more than two minutes to GC favourites Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins and Vincezo Nibali, who were all safely in the front group. Rabobank's Robert Gesink was more than a minute further back, with Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Sharp was the big loser though rolling home 13 minutes down. Fabian Cancellara retains the maillot jaune.
As yet, there is no clue as to what caused that crash which resulted in the first big shake-up in the general classification since last Saturday’s Prologue. Like the chute on the first Friday of last year’s race that brought Wiggins’ 2011 Tour to an end with a broken collarbone, it happened not on a bend or a technical descent, nor on an urban street strewn with road furniture, but on a straight road through the French countryside that shouldn’t have posed particular difficulties.
The crash, which happened at a reported 70 kilometres an hour on a slightly downhill section on the rolling landscape, left a tangle of bikes and bodies on the ground and several riders in a roadside ditch as well as on the asphalt, with many slow to pick themselves up. Afterwards Davis Millar said it was the most frightenging crash of his career and described it on Twitter as "like a tidal wave of debris smashing towards us, could do nothing but brake and pray."
Garmin-Sharp, who have endured a wretched Tour to date, including Tyler Farrar crashing yesterday for the fourth time in six days, had two of the riders who came off worst today, with nearly the entire team involved in the incident.
Besides Hesjedal, 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Van Summeren also went down very heavily and trailed in more than a quarter of an hour after the winner, his jersey, and one of his shoes, in shreds. The team's Tom Danielson, struggling with a separated shoulder sustained earlier this week, abandoned today.
With the crash blocking the width of the narrow road which was flanked by open fields, the time some riders were losing was added to by the impossibility for team cars to get trough with replacement bikes, and in the meantime a front group of around 70 riders was already well up the road in pursuit of a four man break that had got away early in the stage.
Orica-GreenEdge and BMC Racing were prominent at the front of that bunch in forcing the pace along, while behind them, once they had remounted, a group containing RadioShack-Nissan’s Schleck, Lampre-ISD’s Scarponi and others involved in the crash was chasing hard to try and limit their losses, making up half a minute by the time they reached Metz, but still finishing more than two minutes down on the front group.
Also in that chasing group were Europcar's Pierre Rolland, best young rider on last year's race, the 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde, and Astana's Janez Brajkovic.
At the head of the race, Lotto-Belisol took up the pace at the front of the peloton as they looked to set up Greipel inside the closing kilometres. The German, winner of the past two stages, had himself been involved in two earlier crashes today, and the initial word from his team was that he would not be contesting the sprint having apparently dislocated his shoulder and popped it back in himself.
But perhaps as a result other sprinters including Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish and Katusha’s Oscar Freire being among those delayed by that big chute 25 kilometres out, the Lotto-Belisol rider was sitting as last man in the train behind Greg Henderson as the group swept up Garmin-Sharp’s David Zabriskie, the last survivor of the break, shortly before the flamme rouge.
For a moment, it looked as though Greipel might achieve something Cavendish has never done and secure a hat-trick of road stage wins on consecutive days, a feat last achieved by Mario Cipollini in 1999 when he won four in a row, although Lance Armstrong did take three in succession including an individual time trial in 2004.
Sagan, winner of Sunday’s Stage 1 in Seraing and again on Stage 3 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, had other ideas, however, hammering his cranks round as he shot past Greipel shortly before the line.
Several riders were reportedly taken to hospital by ambulance following the stage and it is likely that some will not start tomorrow's Stage 7, which with a summit finish on La Planche des Belles Filles had widely been seen as the first big GC day on this year's Tour prior to today's chaos.
Stage winner Peter Sagan, Liquigas-Cannondale
“I'm very happy when I can win a stage like today. Yesterday I was unlucky with the crash but also content that nothing was broken and that I didn't have any injuries. I don't want to be compared with other riders, I want to be Peter Sagan.
“I was near the front when the crash happened but the two riders who were ahead were pushed and this forced me to brake; behind me was Vincenzo Nibali who also had to brake and behind us was the crash. This is the race, this is the Tour de France and it's very nervous. The accident was on a downhill and we were going very fast and it's very dangerous.
“Another win and I called this one ‘The Hulk'. I want the green jersey and I think I can hold on to it all the way to Paris.
“This is already more than I ever expected. It's surprised me too. I wanted to do well but I need to say that this is only the start of the Tour de France and tomorrow is when the race really begins because it's the climbs and I think that after two weeks, by the start of the third week, it's going to be really hard.
“I think I did well today because the other sprinters are a little tired and maybe that's the key to this win.”
Frank Schleck, third in the 2011 Tour de France, RadioShack-Nissan:
“The time loss is what it is. I wasn’t one of the top favorites for the overall, but this is, of course, untimely. I mean, I have been feeling good since the start in Liège. We have had an amazing time with Fabian in yellow and I was feeling confident about what is to come.
“Now that I’ve lost this amount of time, it changes things. We'll see with the team if we change my strategy. This is cycling: there are good times and bad times.
“A bunch of riders were going maybe 70kph and there was a crash on a big road – when it’s that speed you can’t really avoid it.
“I don’t think I have anything broken. Just some pain in my shoulder, some pain in my hip and we’ll check my knee. So we’ll see. If there is nothing broken I will be there tomorrow.”
Maillot jaune, Fabian Cancellara, RadioShack-Nissan:
“From the beginning there were crashes today after only 25km. In the middle there was a crash, then toward the end there was the crash right next to me.
“I was happy that at 70kph I could stay on the bike. We had to take a look around to see which teammates were still in the group and we saw that Fränk was not with us.
“It was already too late, the race was going away. We have Andreas up there so now he’s the leader of the team. We found out Fränk’s group was more than two minutes behind and there was nothing we could do.
“Now our plan will change on how to use Fränk on a team that still has big ambitions for the Tour de France.
“I have no idea about the finish tomorrow. I saw in the race book that the climb is marked in black, which means the gradient is something like 9, 10 or 11%. That’s normally a level of steepness that I don’t like.”
David Zabriskie, Garmin-Sharp, winner of Stage 6 Combativity Prize
“I didn't think the escape would last as long as it did. I just tried to do the break and I thought we were going to get caught a little bit earlier but those last 12 or 13 kilometres were all with a tailwind so it's hard to pull back a move when it's like that.
We were just trying to get to the line and, at the end, I gave it that one last dig and they fell off my wheel.
“My prize today is not even close to a consolation for what happened to the team today. That's real bad luck but this race is full of ups and downs so that's the way it is. It's too bad.
“I'm not upper management yet but I'm sure there's going to be a lot of consoling of one another [after what happened today] and trying to cheer each other up. But as long as we're team-mates, we're kind of like family so that goes a long way.
“What happened today is like if you were to take away all the laws on the freeway you'd get a similar result.
“It's the Tour de France – and bike racing in general – has days like this; you can be the strongest man in the world but you've got to have some luck every now and then. Sometimes you've got good luck and sometimes you've got bad luck… and, oh look at that, they're playin' Michael Jackson now. That's a bit of good luck.”
Team Sky Sports Director, Sean Yates:
"It was another nervous stage and one in which it was imperative we stayed out of trouble, especially heading into the hillier days to come.
"There was a cross tailwind towards the end and everybody was so bloody nervous. That made it hell and caused the massive crash with 25km to go.
"Cav was caught up behind it and suffered a puncture because he had to break so hard. Richie went down in it but both of them were OK though, as were the rest of the guys, which is a bonus.
"Bradley, Froomey, Bernie, Christian and Mick were all right towards the front and you saw once again how important that is. The worst stages are over now in that respect though and we’re looking in relatively good shape."
Tour de France Stage 6 result 1. SAGAN Peter LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE 04h 37' 00'' 2. GREIPEL André LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM Same time 3. GOSS Matthew ORICA GREENEDGE 4. VAN HUMMEL Kenny VACANSOLEIL-DCM 5. HAEDO Juan Jose TEAM SAXO BANK-TINKOFF BANK 6. HENDERSON Gregory LOTTO-BELISOL TEAM 7. PETACCHI Alessandro LAMPRE - ISD 8. PAOLINI Luca KATUSHA TEAM 9. IMPEY Daryl ORICA GREENEDGE 10. LANCASTER Brett ORICA GREENEDGE + 00' 04'' 11. HINAULT Sébastien AG2R LA MONDIALE 12. CURVERS Roy TEAM ARGOS-SHIMANO 13. SIMON Julien SAUR-SOJASUN 14. EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM 15. EISEL Bernhard SKY PROCYCLING 16. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE 17. MARCATO Marco VACANSOLEIL-DCM 18. KLÖDEN Andréas RADIOSHACK-NISSAN 19. SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI 20. ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE Last man home on Stage 6 190. VAN SUMMEREN Johan GARMIN-SHARP-BARRACUDA + 16' 12'' General Classification after Stage 6 1. CANCELLARA Fabian RADIOSHACK-NISSAN 29h 22' 36'' 2. WIGGINS Bradley SKY PROCYCLING + 00' 07'' 3. CHAVANEL Sylvain OMEGA PHARMA-QUICK STEP + 00' 07'' 4. VAN GARDEREN Tejay BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 10'' 5. MENCHOV Denis KATUSHA TEAM + 00' 13'' 6. EVANS Cadel BMC RACING TEAM + 00' 17'' 7. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 00' 18'' 8. SAGAN Peter LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 00' 19'' 9. KLÖDEN Andréas RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 00' 19'' 10. MONFORT Maxime RADIOSHACK-NISSAN + 00' 22''
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.