Marcel Kittel won the fourth stage of the Tour de France, and his third of the event, in a sprint as the tour returned home from England.

Crashes ensnared some big names, but Vincenzo Nibali of Italy retained the yellow jersey.

Unlike his easy-looking wins in Stages 1 and 3, Kittel eked out victory by a half-wheel length at the end of the 163.5km ride from Le Touquet-Paris Plage to Lille Metropole along the Belgian border.

Kittel did not celebrate this time but panted and it was runner-up Alexander Kristoff of Norway who swatted the air in frustration after being pipped at the line by the barreling German. France's Arnaud Demare was third.

Defending champion Chris Froome fell early in the stage after a rider bumped another into the Briton's front wheel.

Froome got up, got bandaged, and got back to the pack. Slovak star Peter Sagan also went down in a spill, and he too recovered.

Before the stage, 2010 winner Andy Schleck dropped out because of a crash injury a day earlier.

Froome and two-time champ Alberto Contador are among the 20 riders who trail Nibali in the overall standings by two seconds.

Froome recovers crash

Team Sky leader Froome skinned up his left knee and left elbow and hurt his left wrist in the crash, but got back on his bike and was treated by a race doctor before rejoining the peloton.

"That must hurt,'' race doctor Florence Pommerie told French reporters, adding the injuries were mostly superficial and amounted to 'essentially a few scratches'.

An aching wrist could mean pain ahead for Froome, as the pack rolls over nine patches of bumpy cobblestones on Wednesday, which could make for a joint-jarring ride and prevent him from keeping his hands on the handlebars.

Kittel has already acknowledged that his job is easier without Cavendish in the race.

The Giant-Shimano rider is not a threat for the yellow jersey: Kittel is not a good climber, and lost nearly 20 minutes to Nibali in an up-and-down Stage 2.

Many race experts believe Wednesday's stage could offer the first big shakeout among the contenders because of the cobblestone treachery. Riders will cover 155.5km from Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg Port du Hainaut, France.

Source: AP