By Julien Pretot
LILLE France (Reuters) - German Marcel Kittel claimed his third win on this year's Tour de France by prevailing in a bunch sprint in Tuesday's fourth stage after defending champion Chris Froome suffered a heavy fall.
Kittel, who also triumphed in the first and third legs, took his overall tally to seven Tour stage victories after beating Norwegian Alexander Kristoff and France's Arnaud Demare.
It was not as smooth as the first two wins as his Giant-Shimano team could not lead him into the finale but Kittel finished off the job himself.
"I was not sure when to start my sprint, it worked out but it was very close," he told a news conference. "In the end there was a possibility to sit on the wheels of another team."
The Giant-Shimano outfit was put to the test by other teams who rode hard in the final three kilometres in an effort to isolate Kittel.
"We should take it maybe as a compliment," the German said. "It was fast and very nervous but I was there with one kilometre to go."
Italian Vincenzo Nibali retained the overall leader's yellow jersey after spending a quiet day in the peloton.
Froome fell off his bike five kilometres into the 163.5-km ride from Le Touquet but quickly got back in the saddle despite sustaining a wrist injury and bruising his hip, shoulder, knee and elbow.
The Briton went for X-rays later in the day and was cleared to continue riding in the race.
"I took a bit of a knock but I'm happy to make it through the day and get to the finish line without losing any time to my main competitors," said Froome.
"The bumps and scrapes are fine but I fell heavily on my wrist so I needed to get it checked out by the doctors. I'm really pleased I've been cleared to race and I'm looking forward to getting back on the bike tomorrow."
Froome, fifth overall and two seconds behind Nibali, also crashed during last month's Criterium du Dauphine.
His wrist will now be put to the test on the cobblestones that mark Wednesday's 155.5km fifth stage from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.
"The wrist is painful and it's certainly not ideal going into tomorrow's cobbled stage but I have a great team around me and we'll get through the next few days as best we can," added Team Sky rider Froome.
After three stages in Britain, where huge crowds turned up to support the peloton from Yorkshire to London, the race came back to France as it heads towards the Vosges through the North.
The wind caused a split in the peloton some 60km from the finish with Pole Michal Kwiatkowski being trapped behind but he was brought back by his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team mates.
Slovakian Peter Sagan fell off his bike with less than 20km left but made it back into the bunch, finishing fifth to retain his lead in the points classification.
Andy Schleck, the 2010 champion whose career has been in freefall over the past two years, pulled out with a knee injury after crashing in Monday's third stage.
Wednesday's stage features 15.4km of cobbled sections that could be made more treacherous if it rains as forecast.
"I saw the forecast for tomorrow and nobody is looking forward to it," said Sky rider Geraint Thomas.
"It's going to be stressful but it's the same for everyone, hopefully we will stay out of trouble."
(Editing by Alan Baldwin/Tony Goodson/Toby Davis)