MONTPELLIER, France — Stage 6 of the 100th Tour de France was a textbook demonstration of teamwork.
Like playing pass the parcel, an Australian deliberately handed over the race lead to help a South African teammate and friend become the first rider from that country to wear the famed yellow jersey.
And Andre Greipel, who won the stage with a fierce finishing sprint, owed a debt of gratitude to teammates who plied him with drinks all afternoon, ferrying bottles back and forth from cars at the back of the race, so he didn’t melt in the scorching sun.
“Room service,” the big German said light-heartedly.
As the new leader of cycling’s showcase race, Daryl Impey can look forward to some first-class treatment, too. Being the first South African to wear the yellow jersey “will definitely change my life,” he said.
Rugby, cricket and, for the majority black population, football, are the big sports for South Africans. Impey can shop in the malls of Johannesburg, where he trains and lives, without being recognized, said his wife, Alexandra.
But that was before his buddy on the Orica GreenEdge team, Simon Gerrans, passed him the race lead at the Tour.
“Wearing the yellow jersey now is definitely going to change things for cycling, put it on the map in South Africa,” said Impey. “Hopefully people will start recognizing me, maybe.”
Gerrans knows the feeling. To wear canary yellow at the Tour is to be king for a day — or more depending on how long the rider keeps the lead.
Gerrans had it for two unforgettable days. Fans clapped and cheered when they saw him. Reporters chased him. A particularly boisterous crowd of Aussie fans played air guitar for him.
The jersey also carries extra responsibilities: news conferences, podium ceremonies and other distractions can eat into rest and recovery — so important for riders to survive the three-week trek over 2,115 miles. Injuries from crashes have already culled seven of the 198 riders who started in Corsica on June 29.
Impey worked for Gerrans earlier at the Tour, helping him win Stage 3 and riding hard in the time trial Orica won as a team in Stage 4. Gerrans figured it was time for some payback. So on Thursday he rode in five seconds behind Impey in Montpellier. That was enough for the race lead to pass from one to the other, because they started the day with the exact same overall time, with Gerrans in first place and Impey second.
“Daryl was a huge part of me getting the jersey so I thought it was a nice gesture to be able to pass it on to him now. Hopefully for a few days,” Gerrans said. “To have the yellow jersey, it just really changes your life as a cyclist.”
“I’ll have a bit more time to myself now and pass all that extra work on to Daryl,” Gerrans added. “I don’t count it as losing the jersey. I count it as passing it on to a mate. It was the plan before the stage and we were able to execute it perfectly.”
Impey’s father was a pro cyclist in South Africa, said his wife. She said Impey also used to train with Burry Stander, a two-time Olympic mountain biker killed Jan. 3 when he was hit by a minibus taxi while biking with his wife. Stander was the second leading cyclist to be killed in a road accident in South Africa in recent years. Carla Swart died in January 2011 when she was hit by a truck while training.
Describing roads around Johannesburg as “pretty scary,” Alexandra Impey said: “I feel more relaxed when he’s training here in Europe.”
Greipel’s sprint-finish victory capped a hard day of riding for the pack, across 110 miles of flat, sun-kissed terrain from Aix-en-Provence.
Anxious that the region’s famous wind, the mistral, might blow hard and split up the race, teams cranked up the pace, reeling in a breakaway rider and motoring at high speed to make sure they wouldn’t get left behind. This in heat that turned tarmac sticky, with temperatures above 90 degrees.
Bottles flew from the peloton as riders emptied them and tossed them aside. At the finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot immediately pulled up at a drinks station, pouring a whole bottle of water over his head and downing another in huge gulps.
“We rode strong all day in poor conditions,” said Mark Cavendish, who won Stage 5 in a sprint but crashed late in Stage 6 and expended too much energy getting back into the race to challenge Greipel in the final dash.
Water-carrying is the job of so-called “domestiques,” racers who ride in support of leaders going either for overall victory or stage wins.
“The yellow jersey doesn’t get bottles, as a general rule,” said Matt White, a director on Impey’s team.
While leaders concentrate on staying up front, their support riders drop back to team cars behind the peloton to pick up drinks.
“It’s a dangerous place to be, getting water bottles at (37 miles per hour) and putting them in your pockets,” said White.
So leaders don’t do it.
Domestiques stuff bottles into pockets and inside their shirts.
“You look like an idiot, but it’s the easiest way to carry them,” said one of Greipel’s water carriers, Australian Adam Hansen.
Then they race back to distribute the drinks to teammates.
“When you’ve got to go all the way back and all the way forward, it’s hard work,” said Hansen.
So Greipel doesn’t do it, to keep himself fresh for the finishing sprints he excels at. His stage win Thursday was his fifth at the Tour.
Greipel said he downed 8 to 10 pints of liquid — about 10 bottles — as he rode. But he didn’t get one of them himself.
“That’s our job: to make it as easy as possible for him,” said Hansen.