Bradley Wiggins avoids carnage to step up challenge for Tour de France

Bradley Wiggins successfully negotiated a crash-strewn first week of the Tour de France as some of his rivals for the Paris podium saw their hopes come to an end on stage six to Metz.

As Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) re-emphasised his stunning talent by claiming the third stage win of his maiden Tour, Team Sky leader Wiggins rolled in with the front group to remain seven seconds adrift in second place overall behind race leader Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan).

The 32-year-old Londoner could take the yellow jersey as early as tomorrow.

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Defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) remained 17 seconds adrift of the Swiss in sixth place, but Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal lost 13 minutes 24 seconds on the day as a result of a crash 26km from the end to effectively end his hopes of a Grand Tour double.

World champion Mark Cavendish also endured a troublesome day. Isolated by a puncture after narrowly avoiding the crash and with Team Sky riding for Wiggins, the Manxman was denied an opportunity to contest the finish.

His wait for a 22nd Tour stage success goes on, while Sagan holds a 80-point lead over Cavendish in the points classification standings.

Garmin-Sharp’s David Millar described the moment his team-mate Hesjedal’s Tour bid ended as the Canadian tumbled from ninth in the standings, 18 seconds adrift, to 108th place.

“It was the scariest crash I’ve ever been in,” said the 35-year-old Scot, riding in his 11th Tour and nursing bleeding cuts. “We were doing 70 (kph) when it happened. God knows how it happened – some idiot.

“It shouldn’t happen like that. Once it started happening we didn’t even have a chance to really brake. We were banging into each other at 60, 70kph. I was lucky, I think, in that I was in the third wave.

“I started landing on guys, but bikes were hitting me, chain rings going up and over me and getting tangled up.”

Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), third in 2011, also lost time, as did Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD).

Wiggins could so easily have done so too, but Team Sky employed the same front-riding tactics as on stage five to ensure the triple Olympic champion reached the Tour’s second weekend, having crashed out with a broken collarbone last year.

The yellow jersey contenders are sure to be whittled down again on the 199km seventh stage to La Planches des Belles Filles tomorrow, which concludes atop a category one climb, and in Monday’s time-trial.

Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford said: “In a split second everything changed and all hell was let loose.

“Five minutes before that crash happened Brad came right up to the front with Christian and it was one of the best moves he’s made so far.

“The first phase of this race is now over and he’s still upright on his bike, which was the main objective, and he hasn’t lost any time.”

Richie Porte, one of Wiggins’ key climbing domestiques, crashed three times today, but will continue nursing bumps and bruises as the race heads towards the Alps.

Cavendish will also ride on, with his quest to draw level with Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade in fourth place in the all-time rankings of stage winners continuing.

Brailsford admitted stage two winner Cavendish’s morale might be low after another day when he missed the dash for the line, but praised sporting director Sean Yates for prioritising Wiggins.

“It’s hard for Mark in those situations,” Brailsford added. “Maybe in previous teams the whole team would’ve stopped immediately and taken him up.

“There were some tough calls for the sports directors, but ultimately Brad was in that front group and lost no time. “When you saw Frank Schleck, Scarponi, (Robert) Gesink and Hesjedal all caught up in that crash, you’ve got to say it was a good day.”

Cavendish was not the only rider to miss out on a record.

Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) avoided the day’s major incident after two earlier, more minor falls, and was in contention as the front group swept up the remnants of the day’s four-man breakaway, with David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) caught with around 1.3km remaining.

Greipel, though, was unable to become the 12th rider to win three straight Tour stages as Sagan overpowered him in the finale, with the German second and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) third.

Sagan has 209 points to remain in the green jersey, with Goss (178) second, Greipel (167) third and Cavendish (129) fourth.

The 22-year-old Slovakian’s talents were evident to all and he will be a major rival for Cavendish at the Olympic road race on 28 July and in the coming years.