St Flour: France`s Thomas Voeckler seized the Tour de France lead in a crash-ridden ninth stage with more favourites caught up in the carnage.
Alberto Contador suffered an early spill before getting back on the saddle amid suggestions that he was pushed while Alexandre Vinokourov was among injured several riders to pull out of the race. A television car later hit the leading group.
Voeckler belonged to a breakaway launched with compatriot Sandy Casar and Spain`s Luis-Leon Sanchez, who outsprinted the two Frenchmen for the stage victory.
The trio`s move on the 218-km ride from Issoire followed a series of crashes and accidents which led the peloton to deliberately slow and eventually cross the line 3 minutes 59 seconds minutes behind Sanchez.
Overall, Voeckler leads Sanchez by 1:49 and Australia`s Cadel Evans by 2:26.
"I cannot win stages every year. I did what I could this time but you have to pick your priorities and mine was the yellow jersey," said Voeckler, who has won stages in two previous editions of the race and held the yellow jersey for 10 days in 2004.
The stage was marred by the most serious of several big pile-ups since the Tour started.
Ninety kilometres from the line, on the Pas de Peyrol descent, a dozen riders fell on to the tarmac or tumbled into a roadside ditch and four were taken to hospital.
Kazakh Vinokourov, third in the Tour in 2003 and riding the race for the last time, had to be carried into an ambulance by his team mates with a broken thigh and called it quits.
Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck, fifth last year, tried to make it back on his bike but pulled out a few hundred metres further down the road with a broken shoulder blade.
His team mate Frederik Willems fractured his collarbone in the same crash while American David Zabriskie broke a wrist and also called it a day.
The four added their names to a casualty list already comprising Briton Bradley Wiggins, Belgian Tom Boonen and Janez Brajkovic, all forced out of a crash-strewn first week of the Tour.
Such was the chaos that Belgium`s Philippe Gilbert, the green jersey holder, Swiss Fabian Cancellara and then Thor Hushovd, who started the day as the overall leader, went to the front of the pack and called for a temporary truce to allow teams to enquire about their injured.
"Given the circumstances, there was no way we could try to defend the jersey," said Hushovd`s and Zabriskie`s Garmin-Cevelo team director Lionel Marie.
Later in the stage, 35 kms from the finish line, a television car hit two members of a then five-man breakaway at the front of the race, Spain`s Juan Antonio Flecha and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland.
While Flecha hit the tarmac and hurt his elbow, Hoogerland was sent flying into a barbed-wire fence.
The two continued but Flecha was treated by the race doctors on his bike for an injured elbow while Hoogerland rode on with blood pouring from his clumsily bandaged legs and finished 17 minutes off the pace.
The incident left Voeckler, Casar and Sanchez to battle it out for stage victory.
"It`s a shame that such a freak accident should take place in a race like the Tour de France. Organisers should really take measures to protect the riders," said Sanchez after winning his fourth Tour stage.
Monday is a rest day and the battered and bruised will be glad of a break.