Tours - Chris Froome's hopes of becoming only the second Briton to win the Tour de France suffered a potential setback when Team Sky were reduced to seven riders on a crash marred 12th stage on Thursday.
On a flat stage that should have been trouble-free for the yellow jersey holders, Germany's Marcel Kittel scored his third stage win of the race after beating 24-time stage winner Mark Cavendish at the line.
It was Germany's fifth win from the 12 stages so far and prompted questions over the form of Cavendish, who has averaged a little more than four wins a year on the race since breaking his duck in 2008.
But the Manxman, who has won only one stage so far on this edition, said he was beaten fair and square.
He said: "I could look at it again, but he was just faster."
Kenyan-born Briton Froome finished just behind to protect his 3min 25sec lead over Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and 3:54 advantage over two-time race winner Alberto Contador. Australia's Cadel Evans sits further back at 6:54 off the pace.
However, for the second time in three days Froome lost a teammate as Edvald Boasson Hagen abandoned due to shoulder injuries sustained in a late spill.
Vasili Kiryienka had dropped out after missing the time cut on stage nine and while Team Sky's Australian all-rounder Richie Porte avoided Thursday's late crash, Boasson Hagen didn't.
Having suffered a bruised elbow in a first spill, the 26-year-old Norwegian's second meeting with the tarmac ended his race and has piled unwanted pressure on Sky ahead of four crucial stages in the Alps beginning Sunday.
Team Principal Dave Brailsford admitted: "It's a real shame for Edvald and a setback for the team that he's been forced to abandon the race.
"It's never nice to lose a rider of Edvald's ability, but ultimately we're still confident that with the riders we've got left we can pull together and see the race through."
Froome did well to stay clear of the late pile-up, and despite the flat terrain, he admitted: "It seems like there's no such thing as an easy day on the Tour de France. It was a hard day out there.
"Every time I cross the finish line there's a little sigh of relief."
However that was before he knew that Boasson Hagen, described as a "versatile rider" who is useful for Sky on the flats, approaches to climbs and on the descents, had been forced to pull out.
His loss and the fact Porte has dropped out of contention for a place on the podium -- a situation that would have given Sky tactical options for the crucial last week - will play in their rivals' favour.
A day after Froome had taken the lead with an audacious attack on the way to the summit of Ax-Trois-Domaines, Sky were decimated by waves of attacks from several teams throughout a brutal but highly entertaining stage nine.
After seeing Dan Martin win that day in Bagneres-de-Bigorre, Garmin's sporting director Charly Wegelius said the tactics had shown that Sky were not all-dominating.
"Nobody's going to attack a team that has eight riders on the front and is working like a well-oiled machine," he said.
"The riders need to see some sign of weakness to get involved, and then once they do it's like a feeding frenzy."
Now down to seven riders, Sky are theoretically exposed to the likes of Valverde's Movistar team as well as the Saxo outfit of two-time winner Contador, although Brailsford remains stoic.
"The plan doesn't change and we will do everything we can to support Chris (Froome)," he said after announcing Boasson Hagen's imminent departure.
Sunday's 15th stage is a 242 km race to the summit of Mont Ventoux and will be followed by a rest day.