Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins maintained his overall ambitions as he avoided a major pile-up which split the peloton on a dramatic sixth stage of the Tour de France.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) came out on top in the sprint finish at the end of the 207.5km route from Epernay to Metz for his third victory of this year's race - but the final day before the race hits the hills proved to be a crash-strewn affair.
The 22-year-old Slovak won a flat-out sprint to extend his lead in the points classification, denying André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) a third straight success in emphatic style, with Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE) in third.
But the day was marked by a number of crashes, the most significant of which came 25km from home and split the peloton to pieces; Team Sky's Mark Cavendish just got through that but his hopes were dealt a blow as he suffered a puncture caused by having to brake so hard to avoid it.
It all means the world champion will have to wait to draw level with Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade in fourth place in the all-time rankings of stage winners.
Richie Porte was brought down in the late pile-up - and two others - but escaped with cuts and bruises while Edvald Boasson Hagen also came to a temporary standstill and dropped out of the top 10 in the general classification as a result.
Outright favourites Wiggins - a year on from the stage when he crashed out of the Tour with a broken collarbone - and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) both avoided it and finished in the front group but a number of other overall contenders saw their Tour ambitions suffer a huge blow.
Giro d'Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) was worst affected as he lost 13:24 while Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), third in the Tour in 2011, gave up 2:09.
Fabian Cancellara remains in the leader's yellow jersey, seven seconds ahead of Wiggins and Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) while Evans is a further 10 seconds back in sixth.
Team Sky continue to lead the team classification while Michael Morkov will wear the polka dot jersey as the race hits the mountains for the first time on Saturday with a 199km route from Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Team Sky's Principal Dave Brailsford was relieved to see Wiggins escape all the drama in behind, saying: "In a split second everything changed and all hell was let loose.
"Five minutes before that crash happened Brad came right up to the front with Christian [Knees] and it was one of the best moves he's made so far.
"The first phase of this race is now over and he's still upright on his bike, which was the main objective, and he hasn't lost any time."
Porte, one of Wiggins' key climbing domestiques, crashed three times, but will continue nursing bumps and bruises as the race heads towards the Alps.
Brailsford also had sympathy for Cavendish with his puncture, but praised Sports Director Sean Yates for his decisive actions.
"It's hard for Mark in those situations," Brailsford added.
"Maybe in previous teams the whole team would've stopped immediately and taken him up.
"They were some tough calls for the sports directors, but ultimately Brad was in that front group and lost no time. "When you saw Schleck, (Michele) Scarponi, (Robert) Gesink and Hesjedal all caught up in that crash, you've got to say it was a good day for us."
Yates himself added: "It was another nervous stage and one in which it was imperative we stayed out of trouble, especially heading into the hillier days to come.
"There was a cross tailwind towards the end and everybody was so bloody nervous. That made it hell and caused the massive crash with 25km to go.
"Cav suffered a puncture because he had to brake so hard and his back wheel locked up. Richie went down in it but both of them were okay though, as were the rest of the guys, which is a bonus.
"We found it quite hard to get towards Cav - as did the [neutral service] Mavic car - because of what had happened. We were completely blocked behind the crash and it meant he never really got any help.
"Bradley, Froomey, Bernie, Christian and Mick were all right towards the front and you saw once again how important that is. The worst stages are over now in that respect though and we’re looking in relatively good shape."
Day of drama
The day had begun with a four-man break moving clear after 5km and they were still ahead of the pack at the intermediate sprint with 72km remaining.
Karsten Kroon (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) was the only rider to contest that, with Davide Malacarne (Europcar), Romain Zingle (Cofidis) and David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) content to roll over the line.
The peloton followed fewer than three minutes later, with Goss beating Cavendish to the line.
Greipel was then caught in a collision on the ascent of the day's only categorised climb, the category four Cote du Buxieres, the summit of which came 62.5km from the finish.
The German was temporarily delayed, but a tough chase accompanied by two team-mates saw him rejoin the peloton.
Further drama was to come when the peloton was split into two by the major collision around 25km from the end, with riders and bikes scattered across the road and in ditches running parallel to the tarmac.
As those involved assessed the condition of their bodies and bikes, the survivors of the split forged on in pursuit of the breakaway.
Greipel and five of his Lotto-Belisol team-mates made it through and led the pursuit of the breakaway, catching three of the escapees with 2.4km remaining and Zabriskie 900 metres later.
Greipel - seeking to become the 12th rider to win three straight Tour stages - was superbly led out again but Sagan once more demonstrated his supreme talent to triumph.