German national champion Greipel benefited from a textbook lead-out by his Lotto-Belisol train in Montpellier to secure his first win of the 2013 Tour ahead of Slovakia's Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and compatriot Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano).
Britain's Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) finished fourth but had the odds stacked against him after crashing on a roundabout 35km from the finish of the 176.5km stage.
Orica-GreenEdge sprinter Impey made history by leap-frogging team-mate Simon Gerrans at the top of the general classification after Gerrans came home five seconds down following a slight split in the peloton in the final kilometre.
Impey is the first rider from the African continent to wear the fabled maillot jaune of the world's greatest bike race, which this year celebrates its 100th edition.
“It’s a great moment for me and I’m going to wear this jersey with pride and fight to hold on to it,” he said.
Impey leads Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) by three seconds on GC, with team-mates Gerrans and Michael Albasini five seconds down in third and fourth place.
Lotto-Belisol entered the final kilometre of the stage with five men on the front primed to launch Greipel towards the line. Belgium’s Jurgen Roelandts and New Zealander Greg Henderson were the last two to peel back, setting Greipel up perfectly for his 11th win of the season.
“Yesterday we struggled to get it right in the final moments but today we got it much better,” said 30-year-old Greipel. “Tactically we got it right. I was in a perfect position and I’m proud of my team-mates.”
Sagan – a triple stage winner from last year – was once again sprightly in the sprint, but the Slovak youngster had to settle for a third runners-up spot in a race in which he has struggled to impose the same kind of authority as he exuded last year.
Stage one winner Kittel finished third ahead of Cavendish, who was forced to fight at the back of the peloton after a heavy crash on the technical roads of Lunel, 35km from the finish.
Greipel moved into second place in the battle for the green jersey after picking up maximum points on stage six, taking the win after already leading the field over the line at the intermediate sprint midway through the stage.
Sagan, the reigning green jersey champion, remains in front with 159 points to Greipel’s 130, with Cavendish in third place on 119.
Under a bright blue sky, 193 riders took to the start in the home town of the painter Paul Cezanne following the overnight withdrawals of Belgium general classification hope Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) and France’s Maxim Bouet (Ag2R-La Mondiale), both of whom were badly injured in the crash that marred Wednesday’s finale in Marseille.
The rider who was thought to have caused the crash, FDJ sprinter Nacer Bouhanni, soldiered on but was dropped by the peloton around 50km into the stage, crossing the summit of the only climb of the day two minutes in arrears and clearly struggling. The French youngster continued alongside his team car for another 20km before calling it a day and withdrawing from his debut Tour.
By this point, the day’s only escapee – Luis Angel Mate of Cofidis – had already had the chance to build up a five-minute lead and see it all evaporate, all in the space of the opening 40km of the stage.
The Spaniard had attacked from kilometre zero, but after not being joined by anyone in the searing early-afternoon heat, Mate sat up and was swallowed back into the pack before the Cat.4 Col de la Vayede.
Strong crosswinds coming off the south coast of France meant the stage was a nervous, cagey but fast affair, with the speed so high during the feed zone that the riders were forced to refuel later than expected.
With fears of echelons – or gaps – appearing in the peloton because of the combination of wind and fast pace-setting, the front of the peloton was populated with the teams of all the major race favourites.
The Saxo-Tinkoff outfit of Alberto Contador and the Sky team of Chris Froome were both a permanent fixture on the front, and both riders finished with the main pack to retain their positions on GC. Froome is seventh at eight seconds while Contador is six seconds further back in eleventh place, with the first summit finish looming on the horizon this Saturday.
The nervousness in the peloton on Thursday led to a flurry of crashes, with the likes of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Cavendish all hitting the deck at different moments.
Both Rodriguez and Cavendish made their way safely back into the peloton, although Brajkovic’s crash with 12km remaining was far more serious and the Slovenian eventually crossed the line more than 10 minutes in arrears.
After a visit to the Tour's mobile hospital, Brajkovic was forced to withdraw from the Tour after the stage - the second Astana rider forced out on Thursday following the earlier withdrawal of Swedish climber Frederik Kessiakoff.
The final five kilometres of the stage saw the peloton still fronted by the teams of the GC favourites in what appeared to be a case of keeping out of trouble.
No one seemed willing or perhaps even capable of taking it on after a particularly punishing day of high temperatures and leg-sapping wind. But the Argos-Shimano team of Kittel soon came through to cast the first roll of the dice.
Lotto-Belisol took it as a cue to put their plan into action – and with Cavendish still reeling from that fall, Greipel had the psychological and physical upper hand.
Thursday’s stage seven is an undulating 205.5km ride from Montpellier features four climbs before a flat finish in Albi and could be the perfect opportunity for Sagan to finally get his name on the list of winners in this increasingly intriguing 100th edition of the Tour.
- Sports & Recreation
- Mark Cavendish
- Peter Sagan
- Marcel Kittel
- Simon Gerrans