Germany's Marcel Kittel overtook Mark Cavendish at the line Thursday to win the 12th stage of the Tour de France, and Chris Froome stayed safely in the main pack to preserve his big lead.
Cavendish moved in front but Kittel gained ground and just beat him to the line to earn his second stage win in three days and third of this race.
"As we say in Germany, good things come in three," the 25-year-old Kittel said. "It was close. I don't know what to say. It was a real sprint today, that's why I'm so happy."
Froome still leads Alejandro Valverde by 3 minutes, 25 seconds and is 3:54 ahead of two-time former champion Alberto Contador.
They rolled through vineyards and alongside the Chinon forest on a 136-mile route from Figures to Tours in the Loire valley, a picturesque region dotted with imposing French chateaus -- the spiral-towered Chateau d'Usse, which dates from the 11th century, and the 16th century Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau, which rests on the water.
About 20 riders were caught in a crash near the end, with some stuck under the bikes of others as wheels and frames jutted out at all angles.
"It's always like that at the end before a sprint," Froome said. "It's scary for everyone."
Cavendish, the Tour's best sprinter two years ago, has had a frustrating race. The British sprinter looked set to clinch his 25th career stage win of the Tour after his Omega Pharma QuickStep teammate Gert Steegmans got him in a great position to attack. But Cavendish did not have the legs to hold on and Kittel beat him by half a wheel length.
"I can go back and look over it, but he was just faster," Cavendish said.
Peter Sagan finished third and still has a comfortable lead as he bids to win the contest for the sprinters' green jersey.
Sagan has 307 points, and leads Cavendish by 96 points. Greipel is in third place and Kittel is fourth, but both are more than 100 points from Sagan.
Looking to keep their riders near the front of the main pack and limit the risk of them being caught in crashes, Froome's Sky and Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff squads took turns pushing from the front.
"That is the best position to be in because there are crashes everywhere," Froome said. "I did hear the crash behind me."
Saxo-Tinkoff tried to pull away with about 3 miles left, but Ian Stannard helped Froome catch them.
German sprinter Andre Greipel and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen were among the approximate 20 riders who were caught in the latest big crash of the Tour, and moments later Froome survived a delicate moment when he appeared to be nudged by Tom Veelers.
Boasson Hagen was clutching his shoulder when he got back up.
"He's being examined by the doctor at the moment, but I don't think he's broken his collarbone," Sky team manager Dave Brailsford said. "He is in a lot of pain, but we hope he'll be able to continue."
Froome said his teammate is "a huge part of the team, and I hope he's OK."
A five-man breakaway surged ahead early on. The group consisted of Spanish veteran Juan Antonio Flecha, Italians Francesco Gavazzi and Manuele Mori and Frenchmen Anthony Delaplace and Romain Sicard, and they built up a lead of about nine minutes after about an hour of racing.
Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour winner, who had a disappointing time trial Wednesday, had to change his bike after a puncture and scampered back to rejoin the main pack.