Tour de France: Marcel Kittel beats Mark Cavendish in stage 12
Marcel Kittel beat Mark Cavendish in a tight sprint to win stage 12 of the 100th Tour de France in Tours.
The German surged through in the final metres to move ahead of Britain's Cavendish and take a third win of this year's race, with Peter Sagan third.
"You can analyse it, but when there is someone simply faster than you there is nothing you can do," said Cavendish.
Team Sky's Chris Froome maintained his overall race lead of three minutes 25 seconds over Alejandro Valverde.
British rider Froome strengthened his grip on the yellow jersey by finishing second in Wednesday's time trial, around two minutes clear of his main rivals, but the fragility of his position was reinforced by a crash in the closing kilometres.
He was being shepherded to the finish line by his team-mates and was only a couple of bike lengths ahead of the crash, which wiped out much of the peloton and injured his team-mate Edvald Boasson Hagen, who is now out of the Tour.
"My team did a fantastic job," said the pre-race favourite. "I was just staying on their wheels and staying out of trouble.
"I did hear the crash behind me and unfortunately Boasson Hagen has been caught up in it. He's a huge part of the team."
The Norwegian was taken to hospital where X-rays revealed he had fractured his right shoulder blade.
Team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said: "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.
"The plan doesn't change and we will do everything we can to support Chris."
Following the crash, racing continued and Cavendish was given the perfect lead-out for the sprint finish by his team-mate Gert Steegmans and was a bike length clear of Kittel as they raced into the final 100m.
However, it was the German who had the extra turn of speed and he won the race to the line by half a wheel.
Cavendish, who was chasing a 25th stage win at the Tour to move into joint third with Andre Leducq on the all-time list, said: "I don't think me, or the team, could have done anything differently.
"He was just simply better. I tweeted the other day that I think he's the next big thing. I think he's the next superstar in sprinting and he showed it.
"He's won three stages now and that's not easy. I can tell you that from experience.
Cavendish, who became the first British winner of the green points jersey in 2011, picked up 35 points for finishing second to add to the 10 he won in the intermediate sprint, to move up to second in the overall standings, ahead of Andre Greipel who was held up by the crash and did not contest the finish.
However, the Isle of Man rider is 96 points behind leader Sagan, who collected 30 to move on to 307 points and, with only two sprinter-friendly stages remaining, he is unlikely to stop the Slovakian retaining the green jersey he won in 2012.
Kittel, 25, took 45 points for winning the stage and moved up to fourth in the green jersey classification on 177 points.
He said: "I would like to dedicate the win to my team and Tom Veelers who struggled to finish the stage because he is feeling pain from his crash on Tuesday."
Dutchman Veelers was knocked off his bike in a collision with Cavendish in the sprint finish on stage 10, race officials clearing Cavendish of any wrong-doing.
The Manx rider then had urine thrown at him - although it is unclear whether he was targeted deliberately - and heard boos and jeers during Wednesday's 33km individual time trial.
Prior to Thursday's stage, Cavendish laughed off the incident, telling BBC Sport: "It wasn't nice at the time. It is the Tour de France. Anything can happen. The beauty of cycling is that you can get so close to the spectators. The majority of fans are brilliant."
The flat 218km stage from Fougeres to Tours followed a formulaic format with five riders breaking clear of the peloton in the early stages of the race only to be caught in the closing kilometres as the sprinters' teams jostled to put their lead men in position.
Friday's 13th stage is also expected to end in a bunch sprint at the end of a 173km race from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond.
Results of stage 12:
1. Marcel Kittel (Ger) Argos-Shimano 4:49'49"
2. Mark Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma-Quick-Step SAME TIME
3. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale)
4. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha)
5. Roberto Ferrari (Ita) Lampre
Overall standings after stage 12:
1. Chris Froome (GB) Team Sky 42:29'24"
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar +3'25"
3. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Belkin +3'37"
4. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo-Tinkoff +3'54"
5. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) Saxo-Tinkoff +3'57"
Green points jersey standings after stage 12:
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale 307
2. Mark Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma - Quick-Step 211
3. Andre Greipel (Ger) Lotto-Belisol) 195
4. Marcel Kittel (Ger) Argos-Shimano) 177
5. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha) 157