Bradley Wiggins has kept his yellow jersey hopes alive in a crash-marred sixth stage of the Tour de France that effectively ended the campaigns of some of his rivals.
Race debutant Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) convincingly won his third Tour stage besting an injured Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Australia's Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) after a huge crash within the final 25km split the peloton.
The 22-year-old Sagan is the 15th rider to win three stages in a Tour debut.
World champion Mark Cavendish wasn't caught in the pile-up, but suffered from a puncture which saw him fall back into a chase group. He rolled in more than six minutes behind the race winner and all of his Sky teammates, excluding Edvald Boasson Hagen who was also distanced, supporting Wiggins in the small front split.
Wiggins, Cadel Evans (BMC), Denis Menchov (Katusha) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) did not lose time in what was the last opportunity for the sprinters until Saturday week and a stage not expected to shake-up the general classification.
Garmin-Sharp team leader Ryder Hesjedal's yellow jersey campaign seems over. The Giro d'Italia champion lost more than 13 minutes after hitting the tarmac. Rabobank's Robert Gesink lost more than three minutes and RadioShack-Nissan's Frank Schleck more than two.
Wiggins lost one of his key domestiques in Kanstantsin Siutsou to a crash earlier this week. Richie Porte, another of his workers, did not escape today's carnage finishing 13 minutes and 24 seconds off the pace but reports suggest is not seriously injured.
A break of four riders including Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Davide Malacarne (Europcar), Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) and Romain Zingle (Cofidis) comprised the break of the day. The quartet, which escaped about 10km into the 207.5km stage, held a maximum time advantage just under seven minutes that dropped to less than a minute with some 40km remaining.
Zabriskie, the only Garmin rider to have escaped injury so far this Tour, was the last to be caught within the final 2km.
Greipel was involved in a crash 35km into the stage suffering skin abrasions and a cut to his thumb. Despite reports the 29-year-old, who has won two stages of the Tour so far, would not contest the finish, as a result, he was there.
Orica-GreenEdge set the pace at the pointy end of the race, determined to deliver Goss to his career first Tour stage win but was forced to settle for another top five result.
Goss was the best of the bunch outsprinting Cavendish at the intermediate check earlier in the race and after his podium place remains in the points classification mix.
The Tour changes pace tomorrow as the peloton heads toward the mountains.
Tour de France 2012 stage 6; Epernay - Metz 207.5km
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas 4:37:00
2. André Greipel (Ger) Lotto-Belisol
3. Matthew Harley Goss (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
4. Kenny Robert Van Hummel (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM
5. Juan José Haedo (Arg) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank
6. Greg Henderson (NZl) Lotto-Belisol
7. Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre - ISD
8. Luca Paolini (Ita) Katusha
9. Daryl Impey (RSA) Orica-GreenEdge
10. Brett Lancaster (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge 0:00:04
General classification after stage 6
1. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Nissan 29:22:36
2. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky 0:00:07
3. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
4. Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing 0:00:10
5. Denis Menchov (Rus) Katusha 0:00:13
6. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing 0:00:17
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:18
8. Peter Sagan (Svk) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:00:19
9. Andreas Klöden (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan
10. Maxime Monfort (Bel) RadioShack-Nissan 0:00:22
Karsten Kroon heads the escape group
Jens Voigt chases the break
Peter Sagan wins again
Crash victim Ryder Hesjedal at the finish
Tour de France 2012: Latest news
The Feed Zone: Tour news round-up (July 5)
Celebrating the Tour's lead-out men
Liquigas's yellow and green jersey aim at Tour
Brailsford: Sky on the front for Cav and Wiggins
Fourth Tour crash for Farrar
Greipel on a roll at the Tour
Cavendish and Eisel expected to continue after stage four crash
Injury report: Tour stage four
Garmin-Sharp adjust Tour de France plans after injury problems
Sky down to eight after Siutsou crash
Tour de France 2012: Teams, riders, start list
Tour 2012: Who will win?
Tour de France 2012 provisional start list
Tour de France 2012 team list
Tour de France 2012: Stage reports
Stage five: Greipel wins again as Cavendish fades
Stage four: Greipel wins stage after Cavendish crashes
Stage three: Sagan runs away with it in Boulogne
Stage two: Cavendish takes 21st Tour stage victory
Stage one: Sagan wins at first attempt
Prologue: Cancellara wins, Wiggins second
Tour de France 2012: Comment, analysis, blogs
Analysis: How much time could Wiggins gain in Tour's time trials
CW's Tour de France podcasts
Blog: Tour presentation - chasing dreams and autographs
Comment: Cavendish the climber
Tour de France 2012: Photo galleries
Stage six by Graham Watson
Stage five by Graham Watson
Stage four by Graham Watson
Stage three by Graham Watson
Stage two by Andy Jones
Stage two by Graham Watson
Stage one by Graham Watson
Prologue photo gallery by Andy Jones
Prologue photo gallery by Roo Rowler
Prologue photo gallery by Graham Watson
Tour de France 2012: Team presentation
Sky and Rabobank Tour de France recce
Tour de France 2012: Live text coverage
Stage five live coverage
Stage four live coverage
Stage three live coverage
Cycling Weekly's live text coverage schedule
Tour de France 2012: TV schedule
ITV4 live schedule
British Eurosport live schedule
Tour de France 2012: Related links
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Brief history of the Tour de France
Tour de France 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
1989: The Greatest Tour de France ever
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