Peter Sagan sealed the first week of his maiden Tour de France with his third stage win in a crash-ridden 207.5km sixth stage which seriously hurt the chances of some race favorites on Friday.
The 22-year-old Slovak outpaced the leading part of a scattered bunch to achieve a spectacular treble ahead of Germany’s Andre Greipel, the winner of the two previous stages and one of many riders to hit the tarmac between Epernay and Metz.
Australian Matthew Goss took third while Swiss Fabian Cancellara, who also avoided the worst pile-up of the day, retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey.
“I won five in California, four in Switzerland, now three in France. I didn’t expect to win that many stages in my first Tour but why stop now?” said Sagan, who went tumbling to the tarmac in the previous stage.
Several Tour contenders were not so lucky and three riders — US cyclist Tom Danielson, Italy’s Davide Vigano and Spain’s Mikel Astarloza — were forced to withdraw from the race.
Triple world champion Oscar Freire of Spain and Dutchman Wouter Poels pulled out with broken ribs and perforated lungs, as did Frenchman Hubet Dupont (forearm fracture).
World champion Mark Cavendish was held up in the chaos which took place 26km from the finish and was unable to be part of the final sprint.
Other riders had probably waved goodbye to overall victory before yesterday’s first mountain stage.
US team Garmin were among the hardest hit, losing Danielson, eighth last year, while their Canadian leader Ryder Hesjedal, escorted by David Millar and Tyler Farrar, finished more than 13 minutes off the pace.
Giro d’Italia champion Hesjedal went to hospital for checks after crossing the line.
Later, Hesjedal announced his withdrawal from the Tour after sustaining a left leg and hip injury during the crash
“We’ll have to change our game plan now and cheer each other up. We’ll get over it,” said Garmin’s David Zabriskie, who launched the day’s long break and was caught by the marker for the last kilometer.
Among the other top-flight riders held up in the day’s crashes were Luxembourg’s Frank Schleck and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who both lost 2:09, while Dutchman Robert Gesink finished 3:31 adrift.
“It hurts all over. It was awful. Hopefully nothing’s broken,” said Schleck, who finished third overall last year.
RadioShack rider Cancellara, who leads Briton Bradley Wiggins by 7 seconds in the general classification, spent his 28th day in total in the yellow jersey, but conceded it would probably be the last this Tour.
The peloton reaches the first serious climbs in the 199km seventh stage ending at the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles.