By Julien Pretot
MONTPELLIER, France (Reuters) - Germany's Andre Greipel timed his final burst to perfection to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France on Thursday when South Africa's Daryl Impey became the first African to wear the yellow jersey.
Greipel, of the Lotto-Belisol team, beat Slovakian Peter Sagan and fellow German Marcel Kittel at the end of a 176.5-km ride from Aix-en-Provence.
Briton Mark Cavendish, winner of the fifth stage, came home fourth after a crash with some 30 kilometers left. Cavendish was fuming after the stage, blaming the incident on his bike.
Impey said it was a momentous day for the sport in his home country. "It is definitely going to change things and put cycling on the map in South Africa, and hopefully people will recognize me," the 28-year-old Orica rider said.
Pre-race favorites Chris Froome of Britain, seventh overall eight seconds off the pace, and Alberto Contador, 11th six seconds further back, finished safely in the bunch.
"I told the guys to wait as long as possible and everybody to stay together," said Greipel who now has five Tour de France stage victories to his name. "We hit the front with two kilometers to go and I think people can see we have some horsepower. I'm really proud of this team."
Greipel's win was even more impressive because team mate Jurgen van den Broeck, fourth overall last year, became the first high-profile casualty when he could not start because of a knee injury he sustained in a pile-up on Wednesday.
France's Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) and Swede Fredrik Kessiakoff of Astana, who were also involved in Wednesday's crash, pulled out during the stage.
There were more woes for Astana as team leader Janez Brajkovic of Slovenia withdrew from the race after the stage following a nasty crash in the final stages.
"Brajkovic out of the Tour de France. Deep wound left knee, stitches, complicated injury, unable to start tomorrow," Astana wrote on their Twitter feed.
Nairo Quintana had his knee treated by the race doctor following a crash when the Colombian climber misjudged a turn after 55 kilometers. Spain's Joaquim Rodriguez, who was second in last year's Vuelta, also hit the tarmac and suffered bruising on his left side.
On a flat stage, Luis Angel Mate powered away from the pack and built a five-minute lead, but the Spaniard soon realized he had no chance on his own against the peloton. The Cofidis rider stopped his effort after one hour and was swallowed by the bunch.
With strong winds blowing on the way to Montpellier, tension was palpable in the peloton as top contenders looked to stay in front to avoid being caught in a possible split.
Cavendish, of Omega Pharma Quick-Step, fell with 34 kilometers to go. There was no team mate to drag him back into the peloton and the Briton was forced to bunny-hop over roundabouts and make his own way through the team cars.
Cavendish had no juice left for the final sprint and he could not match Greipel's power.
Impey leads Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway (Team Sky) by three seconds in the overall standings with Australian Simon Gerrans (Orica) a further two seconds back.
Sagan (Cannondale) retained the green jersey for the points classification with 159 points, ahead of Greipel (130) and Cavendish (119).
Stage seven will take the peloton 205.5km from Montpellier to Albi on Friday, with the mountains looming over the weekend when the favorites will be put to the test for the first time.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; editing by Robert Woodward)