By Jamey Keaten
LILLE, France (AP) - Marcel Kittel sprinted to his third stage victory at the Tour de France on Tuesday, while defending champion Chris Froome had a scare in a crash that scuffed up his left side and wrist before a tough day ahead on cobblestones.
Astana team leader Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, who kept the yellow jersey, decried a "crazy race" in the 163.5-kilometer (101-mile) Stage 4 along the Belgian border as cycling's big event entered France after a wildly popular three-day start in England.
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 ride from Le Touquet-Paris Plage to Lille Metropole.
Kittel, of the Giant-Shimano team, 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. French rider Arnaud Demare was third.
After a difficult day because of crosswinds and jumpy nerves in the peloton, Kittel said of his seventh career Tour stage win, "It's never easy ... (I was) lucky just enough at the finish line."
Froome, the Team Sky leader, fell early in the stage after a rider bumped another into the Briton's front wheel. He got up, got bandaged, and got back to the pack. Afterward, team boss Dave Brailsford said Froome would undergo X-rays as a precaution.
Slovak star Peter Sagan also went down in a spill, and he too recovered to finish.
"It was a crazy race," said Nibali, describing how his team informed him through his earpiece about Froome's mishap, and went back to see whether he was OK. Froome responded, "more or less," according to the Italian. Froome went straight into the team bus and didn't speak to reporters after the stage.
He skinned up his left knee, left elbow and hurt his left wrist in the crash, and was treated by race doctor Florence Pommerie before rejoining the peloton. She told French TV the injuries were mostly superficial and amounted to "essentially a few scratches."
Froome and two-time champ Alberto Contador are among 20 riders who trail Nibali by two seconds.
An aching wrist could mean pain ahead for Froome. The peloton 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.
Many race experts believe Wednesday's 155.5 kilometers (97 miles) from Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg Port du Hainaut, France, could offer the first big shakeout among the contenders because of the treacherous cobblestones.
"Tomorrow, we just have to make it through the day," Nibali said. "Let's hope it's not raining."
Before the fourth stage, 2010 winner Andy Schleck dropped out because of a crash injury a day earlier. On Sunday, British sprinter Mark Cavendish quit the race after crashing in the final sprint in Stage 1 and damaging his right shoulder.
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.