Tour de France: SA's Daryl Impey in yellow jersey
Impey made Tour de France history on Thursday by becoming the first African to take possession of the Tour de France yellow jersey.
Germany's Andre Greipel, of Lotto, dominated a bunch sprint to win the sixth stage of the race, held over 176.5km between Aix-en-Provence and Montpellier, ahead of Slovakian Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and German Marcel Kittel (Argos).
Impey, who rides for Orica-GreenEdge, took over the race lead from Australian teammate Simon Gerrans.
"I'm really proud to be the first South African and the first African to wear the yellow jersey," said Impey, who had been in second place overall since Orica-GreenEdge's triumph in the team time trial on stage four.
"Sometimes all the stars line up for you and this is definitely one of those moments. To wear the yellow jersey at the 100th edition of the Tour de France is just a dream come true.
"History has been made and I'm really excited. I'm sure a lot of people back in South Africa are really happy.
"To be able to say I wore the yellow jersey for just one day is something I will treasure forever."
On Tuesday Orica-GreenEdge won the stage. "We were the underdogs for sure, but sometimes the underdog wins," Impey commented then.
The flat 25km course around Nice offered plenty of long straights and made for the fastest team time trial in Tour de France history.
In the discipline, each of the 22 nine-rider teams (or however many each team has left) races together, with the entire team awarded the time of the fifth rider across the line.
Any stage win in the Tour de France is a team effort (and you'll always hear a winner thank his team). What makes the team time trial different – and special – is that the entire team gets to stand on the podium. While claiming the yellow jersey is certainly a highlight in Impey's career, his instrumental performance in the other stages, including the Orica-GreenEdge team trial victory, has commanded chapeaux throughout the cycling world.
"He's the best in the business," said roommate Simon Gerrans, who won the 145.5km third stage in Corsica on Monday, after Impey masterfully led him to the line in the sprint. "He did an absolutely perfect job."
Impey spotted a narrow opening on the right side of the finishing straight and snuck through it with Gerrans in tow. Gerrans pulled out from behind Impey about 200m from the finish and gunned for the line. Slovak sprint sensation Peter Sagan (Cannondale) did the same on the opposite side of the road, and if the sprint was 5m further, he would have taken it, but a photo finish showed Gerrans had held on.
It was a lead-out that had social media humming, with Robert Hunter (the first South African to win a Tour stage) tweeting: "Great job by Daryl Impey today … that's how you lead out a teammate … nice to see. Absolute team player."
The win in the team time trial the next day put Gerrans in the yellow jersey, with Impey and another Orica rider, Michael Albasini, tied in second place on time.
Traditional theory holds that there are two ways of making it as a professional road cyclist – winning (as a sprinter or general-classification contender) and being an indispensable team player (as a climber, domestique or lead-out man).
The 29-year-old Impey was inserted in the Orica lead-out train in the 2012 Giro d'Italia as an "experiment". Matt Goss, the team's principal sprinter, was on a second-place streak and needed a win. Goss finally got the breakthrough the team was looking for by winning stage three.
Impey was a revelation for Orica-GreenEdge during the 2012 Tour, and this year, he's once again rolling the roads of France with the chief job description of being Goss's final lead-out for the line.
"Gossy and I have got a great relationship and work well together," he commented before the event. "It's our second Tour together and I think we'll definitely reap the rewards from last year."
Medium mountain days
You only need to glance at Impey's results over the past 12 months to see he's far more than "just" a lead-out man after stage wins in the Bayern-Rundfahrt, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tour de Slovénie as well as the South African National Time Trial Championships.
It's also important to know that Gerrans rode lead-out for Impey in the sprint on stage two because the finish suited him better.
With the current Orica snowball, there is every chance of an Impey stage win, especially on the rolling stage 14 on July 13. "I'm always looking for something lumpy and a small hill near the finish to suit my style. We'll take it day by day," said Impey.
"Our climbing guys like Albasini will be dangerous if found in the break on medium mountain days.
"Our big goal was stage wins, for myself and the team," Impey said. "We haven't really come with GC [general classification] aspirations, but we have a diverse team for all conditions."
Whatever happens during the rest of the Tour then, Impey's – and team Orica-GreenEdge's – Tour has been a success.
Orica will try to keep yellow "at all costs" until the Tour reaches the Pyrenees, with Saturday's 195km eighth stage from Castres to Ax-3-Domaines.
The Tour favourite, the Kenyan-born, South African-schooled Brit Chris Froome, sits poised in the top 10 on the GC, but a few seconds off yellow and, by all accounts, exactly where he wants to be right now. His chief team climbing lieutenant, Richie Porte, is looking in spectacular form, and Sky is bound to make some moves as things get steeper and higher.