PAU, France -- Ahead of two grueling days filled with some truly punishing ascents, the main contenders on the Tour de France were all hoping that Wednesday would be a nice, relaxed day on the bike. It didn't happen.
Instead of what riders call a "transition" day, with a comfortable run to the gateway to the Pyrenees mountains, Stage 11 proved to be a brutal experience for some of the top riders after a series of crashes left them nursing cuts and bruises.
When crosswinds started making the bunch nervous toward the end of the 203.5-kilometre (126-mile) stage from Eymet to Pau, the stress became palpable and led to several crashes at the back of the peloton.
German sprinter Marcel Kittel steered clear of trouble and claimed the stage in a sprint finish, taking his tally to five stage wins since the race started.
But Frenchman Romain Bardet, who is third overall behind race leader Chris Froome, was not so fortunate. He hit the deck and slightly hurt his knee, but the AG2R La Mondiale rider was able to continue after changing bikes and did not lose any time.
"It was a nervous day and I was caught in a crash," said Bardet, who is trying to become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault last managed the feat in 1985.
"It's never enjoyable to fall. I just have to soak it up and to wait for better days."
Two-time champion Alberto Contador went down twice, while second-place Fabio Aru lost one of his Astana teammates when Dario Cataldo was forced to retire with a broken wrist after a crash in the feed zone midway through the stage.
Fifth-place Jakob Fuglsang, another Astana rider expected to play a key role alongside Aru in the mountains, was caught in the same crash.
Though he was able to reach the finish, Astana later said in a statement that Fuglsang had suffered two minor fractures in his left wrist and left elbow. However, they will not prevent him from starting Thursday's stage.
"It was a nervous day," Froome said of the crashes. "Everything was good on our side."
Froome kept his overall lead intact ahead of the big battle in the Pyrenees. He has an 18 second-lead over Aru, with Bardet 51 seconds off the pace. Trailing 55 seconds behind Froome in the general classification, Rigoberto Uran remains in contention and Fuglsang is still within reach of the podium, 1:37 behind the yellow jersey.
Thursday's stage will be extremely difficult, with six categorized climbs -- three of them either rated Category 1 or "hors categorie" -- beyond categorizing. It features a short, but steep uphill finish at an altitude of 1,580 metres (5,200 feet).
Froome described the finish as "quite savage."
"If someone blows in those few hundred meters, there could be some really significant time gaps," the Team Sky leader said. "One of the really key stages of this year's race."
Froome also expects Contador to try and wreak havoc during Friday's shorter stage to Foix. Contador has already lost 5:15 overall, but could still ruin the Team Sky masterplan with some relentless attacks on his favourite ground.
"He's never shy to attack from far out. We'd be ready for that," said Froome, adding that his team is "not going to allow anyone to come back on GC (General Classification)."
A sprint specialist, Kittel has now won 14 Tour de France stages in five appearances at cycling's showcase event, a record for a German rider.
Kittel's power in the bunch sprint could not be matched on Wednesday and the Quick-Step Floors rider easily beat Dylan Groenewegen and Edvald Boasson Hagen by half a bike's length, easing up well before the line as he extended his lead in the points classification.
Kittel has lost only one sprint since the Tour started and has been in a class of his own since sprint rivals Mark Cavendish and Arnaud Demare left the race.
"It was a nervy day," Kittel said. "It could have been worse with all the wind."
Three riders -- Frederick Backaert, Marco Marcato and Maciej Bodnar escaped from the pack right from the start at the picturesque town of Eymet in the Dordogne, a tourist hotspot with its castles, caves and other sights.
They built a lead of about four minutes over a laid-back peloton, but the breakaway had few chances of succeeding on the flat, straight roads. The peloton trailed by 30 seconds with 30 kilometres left when Bodnar attacked to go on his own.
The Polish rider went all out, using his time trial skills to resist the peloton's pursuit as long as possible. But despite looking for the best possible aerodynamics position in the downhill section leading to Pau, he was swallowed up with just 250 metres left.
"I thought, 'Oof. That was close,"' Kittel said of Bodnar's effort. "This time, the sprinters won."