Sprint specialist Andre Greipel won a drizzly sixth stage of the Tour de France on Thursday, as crashes again thinned the pack of support riders for rivals hoping to strip Vincenzo Nibali of the yellow jersey.
The German champion collected his sixth career Tour stage victory in Champagne country and the celebrated capital of many French kings by outpacing Norway's Alexander Kristoff in second and France's Samuel Dumoulin in third.
At the end of the 194-kilometre (120-mile) ride from Arras to Reims, Greipel burst out of the pack with less than 300 metres left, and clenched his fists, shouting, at the finish. His job was made a bit easier because Marcel Kittel, a fellow German who has won three stages and dominated the sprint finishes, got a flat tire right before the end.
"I had really good punch today, I am really happy," said Greipel, the Lotto Belisol rider who turns 32 next Wednesday. "Of course I'm not looking at Kittel. I don't need to hide. I am still one of the fastest in the bunch.
"There was a lot of pressure on us, on my shoulders," for a win, he added. "It's a big relief for us."
The top of the standings didn't change, as most of the contenders for victory in the three-week race trailed close behind the muscular Greipel. He was not a challenger for the overall title; like many sprinters, he does not fare well on the climbs that are crucial to winning in Paris. He's 37 1/2 minutes behind Nibali.
Overall, Nibali has a two-second lead over teammate Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark. Peter Sagan of Slovakia was third, 44 seconds back. Two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador, a day after losing about 2 1/2 minutes to Nibali, was dealt another setback: His Saxo-Tinkoff teammate Jesus Hernandez dropped out after a crash.
A 'horrible' day
Among other possible contenders, Richie Porte was 1 minute, 54 seconds back, in eighth place. The Australian inherited the leadership of Team Sky after injured defending champion Chris Froome dropped out on Wednesday following two crashes in a rain-splattered ride.
Porte, too, lost a teammate: Spanish veteran Xabier Zandio was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital with a suspected rib fracture and severe back injury in a group spill with about 79 kilometres left, according to the race medical report. It listed a total of 14 riders with varying injuries from "two big crashes."
"It was such a stressful day — horrible actually," Porte said. "The guys were around me all day, and while we lost Xabi Zandio to the crash, the rest of us kept out of trouble and we live to fight another day."
American Andrew Talansky, winner of the Criterium du Dauphine last month, was ninth 2:05 back overall. Spaniard Alejandro Valverde was 10th, 2:11 back, and compatriot Contador was in 18th, 2:37 behind.
Svein Tuft of Langley, B.C., was tied for 86th in the stage and 132nd overall, 33:35 off the lead. Christian Meier, also from Langley, was tied for 145th in the stage and was 154th overall, 38:45 back.
Nibali said that while Froome's out, "I'm still afraid of Contador," and he expects the Spaniard and other yellow jersey aspirants to attack when the race enters the eastern Vosges mountains on Saturday — culminating with an tough uphill finish in Monday's Stage 10.
"It's true that you can lose a lot of energy defending the yellow jersey, but I've been riding well," Nibali said through a translator. "It's a heavy task to wear it ... [but] to have the jersey could be a little advantage in the coming stages. We'll take it day by day."
With the Tour giving a nod to 100 years since the start of World War I, French President Francois Hollande honoured the fallen and took a ride with race director Christian Prudhomme on Thursday. The Tour chief led a ceremony honouring 1909 winner Francois Faber, one of three winners of early Tours who died in the war.
The Tour has another mostly flat Stage 7, a 234.5-kilometre (146-mile) trek from Epernay to Nancy — the second longest stage — on Friday.