Luis Leon Sanchez played it cool to take victory on stage nine of the Tour de France after a day of attrition.
The Rabobank rider beat out competition from his breakaway counterparts Sandy Casar (FDJ) and Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) to take victory into Saint-Flour.
A determined display saw Voeckler move into the yellow jersey after a stop-start chase from the peloton throughout the day, Garmin-Cervelo and Thor Hushovd eventually forced to admit defeat and to relinquish the fabled jersey.
A break of five riders entered the closing stages but saw its numbers cruelly reduced as a television car side-swiped Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) in a crash that also collected Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil).
Philippe Gilbert led the bunch home taking the sprint for fourth three minutes and 59 seconds down on the stage winner, allowing Sanchez to move up to second overall, 1:49 an unstoppable Voeckler.
The stage was marred by a number of crashes that saw yet more leading contenders forced to abandon the race through injury.
There was a brief scare for Alberto Contador who fell in an innocuous fall with 120km remaining but worse was to come for a number of big-name riders with aspirations of a top-10 finish.
Wet roads on the descent of the Col du Pas de Peyrol saw yet another large crash that saw the stage thrown into turmoil for a brief period.
Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) left the road after clearing a guard-rail and had to be helped up by his team-mates – the Kazakh forced to abandon the race with a broken pelvis and femur in what is likely his last Tour de France.
In the same incident fellow contender Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) went down and was forced to retire with a broken shoulder blade.
Back in the bunch there was a discussion among senior riders whether to slow the pace before the chase eventually resumed.
Up in the break there was confusion but the riders proved to be no less safe as Flecha and Hoogerland were denied the chance to contest the stage victory in appalling circumstances,
Both men were able to remount but fell back through the peloton to finish in the gruppetto, Hoogerland taking small solace in having accrued enough points to retake the polka dot jersey.
It took almost 40km before a break was finally allowed clear on the run up to the climb at Massiac.
Voeckler finally sparked a move that saw the plucky Frenchman joined by five more riders including Team Sky’s Flecha.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) endured a tough start to the day still suffering from the effects of a crash during the first week. The Dutchman dropped off the back of the bunch in the early going but fought his way back to maintain his white jersey.
In the closing stages with an advantage still in excess of five minutes after the bulk of the day’s climbing, Voeckler’s position forced Garmin-Cervelo back to the front over the closing stages.
Despite massed ranks on the front Hushovd’s team were forced to admit to defeat and sat up as the irrepressible Frenchman drove home his advantage.
Leopard Trek and BMC were forced to step in at the front in hope of limiting the damage but the day would belong to Voeckler who now leads into the rest day on Monday.
The man himself told ITV4: "During the day, all stage long people were shouting ‘Allez Thomas’ and ‘maillot jaune’ and I was thinking ‘yeah it would be great but it’s going to be hard to take the jersey’.
"But when I saw we had a gap of seven minutes I thought 'maybe'. In the last 60km I asked my Sports Director whether I should I try to win the stage or think only about the jersey, without any guarantee. He said ride for the overall and I did everything I could. I was so happy when I crossed the line to hear that I had the jersey.
"I think I only have two minutes on a rider like Cadel Evans in the overall. I know it’s impossible for me to keep it 10 days like 2004 but I will just fight and give all I can. One thing for sure is that I can keep the jersey tomorrow as it’s a rest day!"
Brit David Millar (Garmin-Cervelo) was among a number of riders who crashed in the early going with Pavel Brutt (Katusha) and Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel) both abandoning as the attrition rate continued to rise.
Reflecting on a day of carnage, Brit Millar told ITV4: "The next (crash) was horrific. We were coming down a high-speed descent and there was a corner and it kept tightening up. Me and Thor (Hushovd) just made it through but it was one of the scariest crashes I’ve ever seen. It was just carnage.
"I think the sport is so fast now and there are so many of us on the road and all at a similar level and all going for the same thing. It’s a different sport to what it was 20 years ago. We’re just going so much faster, everyone is so much better and there’s so much more at stake.
"Everyone is taking risks and I’d say we’re a bit more cut-throat now in the peloton than we ever used to be. That’s the way it’s going. There’s very little camaraderie and respect and we’re paying the price for that."