Marcel Kittel wins fourth stage of Tour de France

Marcel Kittel wins fourth stage of Tour de France
Germany's Marcel Kittel crosses the finish line ahead of the pack to win the fourth stage of the Tour de France. (Lionel Bonaventure / AFP/Getty Images)

LILLE, France --- Marcel Kittel won the fourth stage of the

Tour de France

— his third of the race — in a sprint as the tour returned home from England on Tuesday.

Crashes ensnared some big names, but

Vincenzo Nibali

of Italy retained the yellow jersey.

Unlike his wins in Stages 1 and 3, when he made victory look easy, Kittel eked out victory by a half-wheel length at the end of the 163.5-kilometer (101-mile) ride from Le Touquet-Paris Plage to Lille Metropole along the Belgian border.

Kittel didn't celebrate this time but panted and, instead, 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. On Sunday, British sprint star

Mark Cavendish

quit the race after crashing in the final sprint in Stage 1 and damaging his right shoulder.

Froome and two-time champ

Alberto Contador

are among the 20 riders who trail Nibali in the overall standings by two seconds.

Froome, the Team Sky leader, 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 TV, adding the injuries were mostly superficial and amounted to “essentially a few scratches.”

An aching wrist could mean pain ahead for Froome, however. 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 155.5 kilometers (97 miles) from Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg Port du Hainaut, France.