German champion Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) sprinted to his first stage win of the 2014 Tour de France in Reims.
The Gorilla, who also won last year’s stage six, stayed safely near the front of the race as Omega Pharma-Quickstep set a phenomenal pace into the final ten kilometres in the crosswinds.
With triple stage winner Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) missing out, it was the Belgian super team who looked to have control of the stage – particularly when Michal Kwiatkowski made a solo bid for glory under the flamme rouge.
The Pole did not have the legs to stay out, however, leaving Greipel to launch his sprint from some 250 metres out and sealing victory by a bike length.
Vincenzo Nibali, meanwhile, retained his yellow jersey as he and his chief GC rivals all stayed safe despite a late split in the bunch.
Greipel said post-stage: “It was a nervous day. We had to stay all the time at the front. I am really happy with my team. They kept me at the front all day.
“It was not my full lead-out as it was difficult to stay together with so many roundabouts. But I had a good wheel with Mark Renshaw and with 250m to go I said to myself, I go full now.
“It feels good to have my first stage win. The confidence was always there. It was not easy but today was really good work from everyone. I think, also, it was a deserved win.”
The race had started at a very fast pace, boosted by a strong tailwind as four riders broke clear of the bunch early on to form the day’s break.
Tom Leezer (Belkin), Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Jerome Pineau (IAM Cycling and Arnaud Gerard (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) were the four to go up the road quickly establishing a four-minute lead.
Giant-Shimano led the chase, Cheng Ji – as ever – taking a big turn in the wind as the speed of the race was well in excess of 45km/h.
The early part of the race, on more enclosed roads, was not the concern of the riders however – the open fields of the Somme were much more of a worry with crosswinds expected.
Mate, who was also in the break on stage four with Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar), was allowed to roll through and take the first of two climbing points on offer on the stage.
The nerves in the bunch began to show however, with two crashes in quick succession just before the intermediate sprint.
With the pace in the bunch increasing, Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp), Arnaud Demare (FDJ.fr) and Marcus Burghardt (BMC Racing) all caught up.
The worst affected, however, were Xabier Zandio (Team Sky) and Egor Silin (Katusha) – both of whom were forced out as a result of their injuries.
The former will now follow team leader Chris Froome home for the British team, having suffered a broken collarbone as Sky’s injury-hit season continues.
Back on the road, the incident prompted Giant-Shimano and race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) to call a slowing of the pace as they passed through the intermediate sprint.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) picked up ten points towards his green jersey bid, but it quickly became apparent the Slovakian had suffered a sit down of his own as he sought assistance from the medical car.
A quick patching up was all he needed, but the effects of the incident saw him join a large group of riders trailing the peloton behind the team cars – Bryan Coquard (Team Europcar), Demare and Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) also with him and his Cannondale team-mates.
Back at the front, the four leaders were brought right back as they hit the wide-open roads of the Chemin des Dames, with Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo keen to keep their team leaders safe from crosswinds which were measured at 30km/h.
Alberto Contador’s team, however, was down a man after Jesus Hernandez became the third man to abandon during the stage as a result of another crash, the latest incident also bringing down Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar) among others.
The splitting of the bunch did not happen, however, with the peloton remaining tightly packed as they allowed the four-man break to extend their advantage again.
Sagan’s group, meanwhile, latched back on to the back of the bunch as the riders crested the short, category-four Cote de Roucy with Mate again leading the way over the top.
The breakaway was finally ended with little more than 12 kilometres to go, with Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) straight onto the front to set a fierce pace.
At the back, the crosswinds finally had an impact as Demare’s hopes of contesting the stage win were abruptly ended as he got caught the wrong side of the split.
Martin’s pace – his efforts being broken up by the likes of Niki Terpstra and Michal Kwiatkowski – caught many riders out – Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) among them.
Nibali and Contador stayed safe at the front however, as the bunch worked their way around the many roundabouts littering the final few kilometres.
Giant-Shimano were among the riders off the back, Marcel Kittel unable to fight his way into position without his team-mates.
As the peloton passed under the flamme rouge, however, Kwiatkowski launched a daring attack – which looked as though it would be enough.
He slowed with 400 metres to go however, the effort too much as Kevin Reza (Team Europcar) brought the sprinters back together.
And it left Greipel to launch a perfectly-timed sprint, punching the air in delight after breaking his 2014 Tour de France duck.
Tour de France 2014: stage six – result
1) Andre Greipel (GER) – Lotto-Belisol – 4.11.39hrs
2) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha – ST
3) Samuel Dumoulin (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale
4) Mark Renshaw (AUS) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
5) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale
6) Romain Feillu (FRA) – Bretagne Seche Environement
7) Tom Veelers (NED) – Giant-Shimano
8) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Team Europcar
9) Sep Vanmarcke (BEL) – Belkin Pro Cycling
10) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – IAM Cycling
General classification (provisional)
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 24.38.25hrs
2) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +2”
3) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale +44”
4) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +50”
5) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – Trek Factory Racing +1.17
6) Jurgen van den Broeck (BEL) – Lotto-Belisol +1.45
7) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Belisol +1.45
8) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky +1.54
9) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Garmin-Sharp +2.05
10) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +2.11