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Stage 6 of the Tour de France, 176.5km from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier.
Obstacles at the Tour de France come in many forms. On paper, stage 6 from Aix-en-Provence to Montpellier is one of the gentler legs of the Tour’s tricky opening week but out on the road, the dreaded Mistral could wreak havoc on the peloton and split the race to shreds. The sprinters will still fancy their chances of prevailing in Montpellier when the dust settles, but the overall contenders will be mindful that the Rhône delta has proved an elephant’s graveyard to many lofty maillot jaune aspirations in the past.
Today’s stage heads northwest out of Aix-en-Provence before veering southwest towards Montpellier shortly after leaving Beaucaire around the midway point. There are plenty of changes in direction from there on in, and as this chart shows, the northerly wind will buffet the peloton side on for much of the afternoon. Wind speeds may ‘only’ be 35kph or so, but on exposed roads that could be enough to split the field, particularly if one or more strong teams look to seize the initiative.
The additional danger – as ever in the Tour’s frantic opening week – is the risk of crashing. Every time the road twists, every radio earpiece in the bunch will crackle with 22 directeurs sportifs barking out the same order in unison – “Be in front.” Thomas Voeckler, for one, has regularly blamed such instructions for whipping up the tension in the bunch still further and increasing the chance of crashes.
Yesterday's mass pile-up in the finishing straight has sadly brought Jurgen Van Den Broeck's Tour de France to a premature halt. The Lotto Belisol rider sustained a knee injury in the fall, and although the team doctor drained 85cc of fluid from the joint last night, Van Den Broeck was unable to pedal this morning.
The peloton is currently negotiating the neutralised zone and we understand that Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) is among the starters in spite of the injuries he sustained in a crash yesterday. The départ réel is due at 13.20 local time.
Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) is in the yellow jersey for a second day and he leads teammates Daryl Impey and Michael Albasini.
The general classification situation is as follows:
1 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge 18:19:15
2 Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica-GreenEdge
3 Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEdge
4 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:00:01
5 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quick Step
6 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling 0:00:03
7 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling
8 Richie Porte (Aus) Sky Procycling
9 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:09
10 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Team Saxo-Tinkoff
As soon as the flag dropped, Luis Maté (Cofidis) zipped up the road and the Spaniard quickly opens a lead of 40 seconds over the peloton.
So far there's been no response from the peloton to Maté's early attack and he has stretched his advantage out to 1:45.
193 riders left Aix-en-Provence still in the peloton. Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Maxime Bouet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) are the two non-starters. Bouet broke his wrist in that finishing straight pile-up in Marseille yesterday, which made it a hugely disappointing homecoming for the former VC La Pomme rider.
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) injured old collarbone and back injuries in his crash yesterday, and he warmed up on the rollers before the off today in a bid to give himself a fighting chance of staying in the Tour. "I’m trying to give myself a fighting chance," Vande Velde said. "My biggest concern is my health and that of those around me. If I’m a danger to either, I’ll be out of here. If I’m ok, I’ll push on."
The expected battle for positions in the crosswind this afternoon will not help Vande Velde's hopes of finishing his final Tour de France.
"I don’t know what chance I have. I don’t feel so bad, but today is one of the worst days I could have," he said. "A mountain day would have been fine. This is going to be hard. It’s going to be windy, it’s going to be nervous and there’s going to be a lot of sprinting."
After 14 kilometres, Luis Maté is still ploughing a lone furrow out front and he has a lead of 3:20 over the peloton after exiting Saint-Cannat. He began the day over half an hour down in 166th position, so Orica-GreenEdge have little interest in shutting down his move.
Maté's lead has stretched out in excess of four minutes and Omega Pharma-QuickStep have moved to the head of the peloton to keep a watching brief. The Belgian squad will doubtless relish the possibility of crosswinds later in the afternoon. Be it in hail or shine, on the North Sea coast at the Three Days of De Panne or in the Arabian Gulf at the Tour of Qatar, Omega Pharma-QuickStep have firepower like few others when it comes to navigating the wind.
On a very similar stage four years ago, Mark Cavendish won the bunch sprint in La Grande-Motte after a day that scattered the general classification contenders to the four winds. When the peloton split in the final 25 kilometres, Lance Armstrong marshalled the front group of 25 to put 40 seconds into Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans - and his then-Astana teammate Alberto Contador.
"You know what the wind's doing, you see a turn's coming up, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you have to go to the front. I wasn't waiting, just trying to stay up front and stay out of trouble and then it happened," Armstrong said pointendly afterwards. The rocket science, so to speak, had doubtless already taken place somewhere off the motorway exit at Ferrara Nord...
Astana were also to the fore in splitting the peloton on the road to Montpellier in 2007. On stage 11, Alexandre Vinokourov led the forcing and Christophe Moreau bade farewell to his faint hopes of the podium when he coughed up over three minutes.
Indeed, plenty of curious things have taken place on the road to Montpellier over the years. In 1956, for instance, Federico Bahamontes recouped 17 minutes on the maillot jaune when he infiltrated a five-man break on a day hardly suited to his climbing talents. For a full account of that remarkable Tour, eventually won by Roger Walkowiak, and all of Bahamontes' myriad Quixotic adventures, read Alasdair Fotheringham's definitive biography, The Eagle of Toledo.
Maté's lead is 4:30 over a relaxed peloton, which is trundling under serene blue skies with Orica-GreenEdge at the head of affairs.
Simon Gerrans is bedecked all in yellow near the head of the peloton, where the pace has upped discernibly over the past five kilometres or so. Gerrans enjoyed his first day in yellow yesterday but he could lose the precious fleece this afternoon if he finishes seven places behind teammate Daryl Impey today.
Luis Maté's lead has dropped to barely more than a minute as the pace begins to stiffen further in the main peloton. The Spaniard has perhaps realised that he has no hope of staying clear without reinforcements on a day like today. We're a little over 20 kilometres from the day's intermediate sprint at Maussane-les-Alpilles.
Nacer Bouhanni (fdj.fr) drops back for some attention from the race doctor. The pugnacious Frenchman is suffering from intestinal problems and compounded matters by being the first rider to come down in the crash in the finishing straight yesterday. L'Equipe's needlessly cruel headline this morning? "Bouhanni, the dirty day."
Luis Maté's foray off the front of the peloton has come to an end. The Spaniard sits up and is caught by the bunch after 44km off the front. Gruppo compatto with 19km from the intermediate sprint, which is followed immediately afterwards by the day's lone climb, the category four Col de la Vayède.
À propos of obstacles, a cursory glance at the trees and tricolours on the roadside suggests that the wind is indeed picking up. On a day like today, everybody is suddenly a meteorological expert, of course, but the last we heard is that the wind could pick up to just shy of 50kph in the second part of the stage.
Orica-GreenEdge are still leading the peloton, but Jerome Pineau and Niki Terpstra are up there to take a look on behalf of Omega Pharma-QuickStep leader Mark Cavendish.
A phalanx of Cannondale riders are trying to move Peter Sagan up towards the front in preparation for the intermediate sprint but it's noticeable that the GC contenders are also trying to muscle their way in on proceedings at the head of the race. A delegation from Europcar is trying to beat a path for the speckled figure of Pierre Rolland and Joaquim Rodriguez has a red guard of Katusha men for company a few rows back from the front.
Mark Cavendish is typically well-positioned and it will be interesting to see what he conjures up in the sprint. He hasn't appeared overly keen to stretch himself in the intermediate sprints so far but yesterday's stage win has moved him up to second place in the points classification, albeit 35 points behind Peter Sagan. If Cavendish is to wrest the jersey away from the Slovak, he needs to make up ground on days like today.
In spite of the wind, it's a warm afternoon in southern France, as the race heads from Provence into Languedoc, with temperatures of 28 degrees Celsius.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) crashes at low speed near the rear of the peloton. The Colombian is quickly back on his bike and is chasing back on in the company of a pair of teammates. Quintana is making his Tour debut this year but he has some impressive previous on French roads. Winner of the Tour de l'Avenir in 2010, he soared to fine stage win at last year's Dauphiné in Morzine, a town evocative of Colombian cycling's storied successes in the 1980s.
Quintana is now being treated by the race doctor at the rear of the bunch. It appears that he took a bang to his left knee in that fall but he does not seem overly concerned.
It's a real Calvaire for Nacer Bouhanni today, unfortunately. The Frenchman has been a regular visitor to the fdj.fr team car at the rear of the peloton.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep are now on the front and winding up the pace ahead of the intermediate sprint but Cannondale and Lotto Belisol are also forming trains.
André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) times his effort well to take the intermediate sprint ahead of Cavendish, while Sagan faded in the final 50 metres.
Immediately after the sprint, the peloton begins the short category 4 climb of the Col de la Vayede, with Orica-GreenEdge continuing to set the tempo.
The full result of the intermediate sprint was as follows:
1André Greipel (Lotto Belisol) 20 pts
2Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) 17
3Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) 15
4Peter Sagan (Cannondale) 13
5Gert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) 11
6Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) 10
7Fabio Sabatini (Cannondale) 9
8Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) 8
9Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) 7
10Danny Van Poppel (Vacansoleil-DCM) 6
11Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) 5
12Brookwalter (BMC) 4
13Svein Tuft (Orica-GreenEdge) 3
14Marcus Burghardt (BMC) 2
15Brett Lancaster (Orica-GreenEdge) 1
Meanwhile, Nacer Bouhanni is continuing to struggle off the back of the peloton and it looks like he has been definitively distanced.
Up front, Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky) led the peloton over the top of the climb and claimed the single point on offer.
There has been an injection in pace over the top of the climb and the bunch is strung out in a long line as the race descends towards Fontvielle. Bouhanni is now two minutes down and it's going to be long, lonely afternoon for the young sprint talent. It's been a mixed season for Bouhanni - his fine stage win at Paris-Nice was followed by a heavy crash the next day. While Bouhanni recovered to ride the Giro d'Italia, he was left frustrated by a string of near misses in Italy and his Tour has been a difficult one.
The wind is coming from the riders' right hand side and there is plenty of jostling for position in the peloton. Orica-GreenEdge are leading affairs but an arrowhead of Katusha and Sky riders are protecting Joaquim Rodriguez and Chris Froome, respectively, near the front.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) sits tucked on Michael Rogers' wheel and one imagines that he will have to be all but prised off it for the remainder of the afternoon.
The flagging Bouhanni takes a can of Coke from his team car. He shakes his head in disappointment as the television camera draws near. He is a long. long way off the back of the peloton.
After two hours of racing, letour.fr tells us that the average speed is 38.3kph in spite of the fact that the bunch was riding more or less into the wind early on.
A change in direction at Tarascon sees the wind hit the peloton side on and Ian Stannard duly hits the front and ups the pace for Team Sky.
It's a jittery day in the peloton and news reaching us via letour.fr that Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was a faller although it appears the Catalan remounted quickly and is in the main peloton.
Nacer Bouhanni has climbed off and abandoned the Tour. The Frenchman was struggling with illness all day and that injection of pace from Sky was the final nail in the coffin. Knowing that he stood little chance of finishing inside the time limit, let alone rejoining the peloton, Bouhanni has ended his Tour here.
Geraint Thomas, fractured pelvis nothwithstanding, is among the gaggle of Sky riders forcing the pace at the head of the peloton along with Omega Pharma-QuickStep. There's no scope for escapees to get away at this rate and a number of riders are struggling to hang on at the back of the field.
Sylvain Chavanel, so often the Andres Iniesta-style playmaker in Omega Pharma-QuickStep's line-up, is setting a fierce tempo at the head of the bunch. The GC contenders can't afford to lose sight of the front of the pack here, this is a potentially critical juncture in the stage.
A determined line of Belkin riders move Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink towards the front, while at the rear of the bunch, John Gadret (Ag2r-La Mondiale) has punctured at the most inopportune of moments.
The pace has lulled slightly at the head of the bunch and the riders are spread across the road, but one imagines that it is a temporary truce. Given the speed through the feed zone, there are plenty of riders who'll be glad to have a chance to rifle quickly through the contents of their musettes before the hostilities resume again in earnest.
Frederik Kessiakoff (Astana) is the second rider to abandon today. The Swede was custodian of the king of the mountains jersey for much of last year's Tour but he will have no chance to repeat such exploits this time around.
The bunch trundles along parallel to the Canal du Bas-Rhône Languedoc and one senses that the pace is about to pick up once again very shortly. World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) is near the front and takes a look around for his leader Cadel Evans.
The sense of foreboding regarding the wind on today's stage is reflected by the story of the day so far. Luis Maté's short-lived solo break aside, nobody has dared to even try to escape the clutches of the bunch today, and we can expect collective team forcing rather than solo escapes over the remaining 73 kilometres or so.
It's still gruppo compatto but the overall contenders are all swirling around the head of the peloton and keeping a keen eye on proceedings, as Orica-GreenEdge and Omega Pharma-QuickStep dictate the tempo.
Andy Schleck has struggled ever since he finished second to Cadel Evans two years ago, with his only victory the retrospectively-awarded 2010 title, but the Luxembourger has barely put a foot wrong so far in this Tour and he is well-placed near the front here.
Orica-GreenEdge are maintaining a brisk pace on the front of the peloton, with Simon Gerrans safely ensconced in their midst. There is plenty of tension but so far the anticipated split has not materialised.
Geraint Thomas has dropped towards the rear of the bunch as the pace picks up once again on the front. A strong Sky delegation remains near the head of affairs, however, swarming around Chris Froome.
Some discussions between Sky's Peter Kennaugh and Orica-GreenEdge on precisely what shape the pace-line at the head of the peloton should maintain. The flags on the roadside show that the wind has picked up again, although for now it's at their backs.
The peloton's right side is currently sheltered by a long row of trees but once they hit a clearing, the wind (currently 30kph) will become a factor once again.
Domestiques are making their final treks back to the team cars for bidons, but with a little more than 50 kilometres of racing, the pace is bound to ratchet upwards all the way to Montpellier. As if on queue, Argos-Shimano make their first appearance near the head of affairs. They'll be looking to keep things together for Marcel Kittel.
There's a simple explanation for why nobody has attacked since Luis Mate was caught early on. The average speed for the third hour of racing was an eye-watering 48.9kph.
A double wheel change for Peter Sagan, who pops in a pair of deep section rims in preparation for the inevitable bunch sprint. The pace is rapid at the front, so he'll need some help to get back to where he needs to be.
Sagan has three Cannondale teammates for company and he is already back in the convoy and almost within sight of the rear of the bunch.
Orica-GreenEdge's Stuart O'Grady and Svein Tuft have done much of the pace-setting but both Belkin and Europcar are lining up alongside them to place Bauke Mollema and Pierre Rolland respectively.
Sagan is still dangling off the back with his three teammates but he is almost within touching distance. After three theatrical looks at his front brake, Sagan grabs a hold of his team car for an on-the-hoof adjustment.
The peloton is grinding through a crosswind once again and there are plenty of twists and turns between here and Montpellier. Orica-GreenEdge continue to set the tempo as the road narrows.
Ryder Hesjedal has been racing with a broken rib in recent days and he is near the rear of the peloton. We haven't had news of his teammate Christian Vande Velde since the start in Aix-en-Provence but we believe the American is still in the main field in spite of the injuries he picked up in his crash yesterday.
There is plenty of road furniture on the approach to Montpellier, an additional complication thrown into the mix alongside the wind and changes in direction.
BMC and Katusha have now taken over at the head of the field but word reaching us of a crash further back.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) was either a faller or caught behind the crash. In any case, the Manxman is chasing alone behind the peloton. His Omega Pharma-QuickStep team will surely drop numbers back to nurse him back to the peloton.
Cavendish's frayed jersey shows that he was indeed a faller. He is glued to the bumper of the Omega Pharma-QuickStep car as he tries to get back on, but he has 42 seconds to make up.
Cavendish is now negotiating his way alone through the convoy and he squeezes ahead of a couple of cars by bunny-hopping across a roundabout.
Cavendish has Peter Velits for company as he tries to make up those 30 seconds alone, jumping from bumper to bumper, while Sylvain Chavanel has slowed matters at the head of the bunch.
That brief spell of detente at the head of the bunch has helped Cavendish to get back on. He is locked on to Velits' wheel and moving up on the right hand side of the peloton.
That was a rapid recovery from Cavendish but that effort will surely have drawn some of the sting out of his legs, and he has little opportunity to recover before the finale.
Saxo-Tinkoff set the tempo at the front of the bunch. Alberto Contador conceded 40 seconds in the final 25km to La Grande-Motte four years ago and he is taking care not to make the same mistake again in the same neck of the woods.
The rapid pace at the front of the peloton means that it is all but impossible for anyone to escape off the front. Belkin take up the reins at the head of the bunch.
A litany of roundabouts face the peloton as they make their way towards Montpellier. Belkin continue to lead but there's a clutch of Sky riders lining up alongside them in defence of Chris Froome's interests.
Alberto Contador is maintaining his position near the front of the bunch. The overall contenders will have to be vigilant here as there peloton is fraying ever further with each passing roundabout.
A local fan in full Mercier kit pays homage to Raymond Poulidor by riding along the bike path parallel to the road but he is quickly overtaken by the Omega Pharma-QuickStep-led bunch.
Michael Rogers has been an enormously useful bodyguard to Alberto Contador today and a small group of Saxo-Tinkoff riders remains well-positioned at the right-hand side of the road, alongside Omega Pharma-QuickStep.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep are now looking to seize control of the situation. Gert Steegmans is directing traffic and he sends Niki Terpstra to the front to keep the bunch strung out.
A crash in the peloton sees Janez Brajkovic (Astana) hit the ground. The Slovenian sits calmly on the road and waits for attention from the race doctor. This does not look promising for Brajkovic.
Brajkovic has been moved to the roadside and continues receiving treatment to his knee. He gets gingerly to his feet and looks like he is attempting to remount.
Brajkovic gingerly pedals off towards the finish line but time waits for no man, particularly at the Tour de France, and the pace is ferocious at the head of the bunch.
It seems that the Brajkovic crash has split the peloton in two. Contador, Evans and Froome are all in the sizeable front group, as well as Cavendish and Peter Sagan.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep continue to set a fearsome pace at the front as riders try to make their way back to the front group one by one.
The yellow jersey of Simon Gerrans is still visible near the front of the race and Marcel Kittel has a platoon of Argos-Shimano teammates for company too.
Andre Greipel's Lotto-Belisol team are also trying to muscle in on the lead-out and there isn't a great deal of cohesion at the front of the bunch.
Sylvain Chavanel and Michal Kwiatowski are champing at the bit for Omega Pharma-QuickStep but they don't want to hit the front just yet and they're letting Argos-Shimano dictate the tempo for now.
Argos-Shimano are lined out on the front as Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Lotto-Belisol look to organise themselves just behind.
Argos-Shimano have begun controlling affairs here and are stringing things out at the head of the peloton with Cavendish, Greipel and Sagan lining up behind.
Lott-Belisol take over in front but there is no sign of Omega Pharma-QuickStep for now.
Lotto Belisol lead under the red kite, with Sagan locked onto Greipel's wheel.
Lotto Belisol lead out the sprint, with Greipel well-placed behind Roelandts...
Greipel launches the sprint and powers to the front, but Cavendish is making a mammoth effort to make up the ground...
Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) wins stage 6 of the Tour de France ahead of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano).
Cavendish started his sprint from a long way back but with 200 metres to go, he suddenly bounded back into contention. The Manxman faded in the final 100 metres however, and sat up to finish 4th. He'll be disappointed but after crashing with 30km to go, it was still a fine effort from the Manxman.
Meanwhile, it seems that Daryle Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) has taken possession of the yellow jersey from his teammate Simon Gerrans after placing ahead of him in that frenetic finish.
Meanwhile, it seems that Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) has taken possession of the yellow jersey from his teammate Simon Gerrans after placing ahead of him in that frenetic finish.
Lotto-Belisol's lead-out was pitch perfect, as Jurgen Roeldandts gave way to Greg Henderson, and he piloted Greipel expertly from there on in. The German hit the front with 200 metres to go and he held off Peter Sagan and KIttel, and withstood Cavendish's fight back. "We hit the front with 2km to go and I think everyone could see we had some horsepower today," Greipel says.
1 André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Belisol 3:59:02
2 Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale Pro Cycling
3 Marcel Kittel (Ger) Team Argos-Shimano
4 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-Quick Step
5 Juan Jose Lobato Del Valle (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
6 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha
7 Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team
8 Danny van Poppel (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
9 Roberto Ferrari (Ita) Lampre-Merida
10 Samuel Dumoulin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
1 Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica-GreenEdge 22:18:17
2 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling 0:00:03
3 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge 0:00:05
4 Michael Albasini (Swi) Orica-GreenEdge 0:00:05
5 Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:00:06
6 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-Quick Step 0:00:06
7 Christopher Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling 0:00:08
8 Richie Porte (Aus) Sky Procycling 0:00:08
9 Nicolas Roche (Irl) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:14
10 Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:14
The bunch split slightly in the final kilometre and 17 riders finished 5 seconds clear of the rest. Daryl Impey finished 13th on the stage and that was enough to lift him ahead of Simon Gerrans (48th) and he becomes the first African to wear the yelllow jersey at the Tour de France. He also becomes the fourth leader of this race so far.
The provisional results show that all of the main overall contenders crossed the line in the body of the peloton, five seconds down on Greipel. In the battle for the green jersey, meanwhile, Greipel moves to second place, 29 points down on Sagan. Cavendish lies third, 40 points behind Sagan.
Thanks for joining us on Cyclingnews for live coverage of the Tour de France today. A full report, results and pictures will be available here shortly, while our correspondents in Montpellier will have all the news from the peloton in due course. And, of course, we'll back with more live coverage tomorrow as the Tour tackles some rugged terrain on the rocky road to Albi on the eve of the race's entry into the Pyrenees.