On a day of drama on stage 12, Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen, one of Tour leader Chris Froome's key wingmen, was injured in a bad crash and is out of the race, while Mark Cavendish suffered his second straight defeat in a bunch sprint stage.
Three of Sky's riders, former Tour stage winner Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas – who had slightly fractured his pelvis on stage one, but was able to continue – and Richie Porte were all caught up in the mass crash 2.5 kilometres from the line at Tours.
Boasson Hagen came off worst, clutching his shoulder as he crossed the line in a gesture typical of riders when they have broken bones. Sky later confirmed he had fractured his scapula. The Norwegian is the second of Sky's line-up to leave the race early, after Vasil Kiryienka was forced to abandon on Sunday's Pyrenean marathon after finishing outside the time limit.
For Sky the loss of Boasson Hagen means the exit of one of their most experienced and consistent Grand Tour performers. He is the only one to have taken part in every Tour de France since 2010, winning two stages in 2011.
Team Principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, added: "It's never nice to lose a rider of Edvald's ability, but ultimately we're still confident that with the riders we've got left we can pull together and see the race through. The plan doesn't change and we will do everything we can to support Chris [Froome]."
While Sky were left ruing the consequences of the late crash in Tours, Cavendish was forced to recognise that he had been fairly and squarely beaten in another bunch sprint. The Briton was ill in the first week and on Tuesday at Saint-Malo's finale was involved in a glancing collision with Dutchman Tom Veelers, which could have had a knock-on effect.
Today, though, there were no such issues to cramp his style: Cavendish was faultlessly guided through to the final metres by his Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad, and with 200 metres to go looked to be in perfect position for a trademark victory blast towards the line.
And blast away Cavendish did, but the 28-year-old could not stop German Marcel Kittel from soaring up on his left-hand side and then out-powering him by half a wheel.
"I got beaten by a faster guy," said Cavendish, who named Kittel as "the next superstar sprinter".
"When you get beaten like that you can look at it over and over again, but I'm just disappointed that I let down my team-mates. At the end of the day I didn't do anything wrong. I was beaten and that was it. You can analyse it but if he's faster there's nothing you can do."
Cavendish now has just two opportunities to take his 25th Tour de France stage: tomorrow and on the Champs Élysées, where he has been unbeaten since his first victory there in 2009. Asked if he was the new King of the Sprints, Kittel played down defeating the Manxman.
"I don't use that word to describe my success, but I showed I can beat the best sprinters," he said.
Meanwhile, the after-effects of Cavendish's high-speed collision with Veelers rumble on: after being dowsed with urine by a spectator on Wednesday, today a Dutch race organiser of a criterium in Boxmeer said he was taking the Briton off his invitation list.
"We have decided he is not welcome. The reason is the way he treated Tom Veelers. We are not going to ask him for sure," Pierre Hermans said.
The ban was widely viewed as being a publicity stunt by the organiser.
"I don't think I've had an invite anyway," Cavendish said, "so I wish them luck with the criterium."
Tour de France: Race details
Stage 12 (Fougeres - Tours, 218km) 1 M Kittel (Ger) Team Argos-Shimano 4hrs 49mins 49secs, 2 M Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma-Quick Step, 3 P Sagan (Slovak) Cannondale Pro Cycling, 4 A Kristoff (Nor) Katusha, 5 R Ferrari (It) Lampre-Merida, 6 D Impey (SA) Orica-GreenEdge, 7 J Joaquin Rojas Gil (Sp) Movistar Team, 8 Y Gene (Fr) Team Europcar, 9 J Jose Lobato Del Valle (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi, 10 S Dumoulin (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale, 11 S Lagutin (Uzb) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team, 12 G Steegmans (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quick Step, 13 J Simon (Fr) Sojasun, 14 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling, 15 E Garcia Echeguibel (Sp) Cofidis, Solutions Credits, 16 M Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step, 17 N Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team, 18 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Movistar Team, 19 R Kreuziger (Cz Rep) Team Saxo-Tinkoff, 20 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team all at same time.
Selected 28 I Stannard (GB) Sky Procycling 4hrs 49mins 49secs, 122 D Millar (GB) Garmin-Sharp at 2mins 31secs, 159 P Kennaugh (GB) Sky Procycling at 4.01, 160 GThomas (GB) Sky Procycling at same time.
Overall 1 C Froome (GB) Sky Procycling 47hrs 19mins 13secs, 2 A Valverde Belmonte (Sp) Movistar Team at 3mins 25secs, 3 B Mollema (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 3.37, 4 A Contador Velasco (Sp) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 3.54, 5 R Kreuziger (Cz Rep) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 3.57, 6 L Ten Dam (Neth) Belkin Pro Cycling Team at 4.10, 7 M Kwiatkowski (Pol) Omega Pharma-Quick Step at 4.44, 8 N Alexander Quintana Rojas (Col) Movistar Team at 5.18, 9 R Alberto Faria Da Costa (Portugal) Movistar Team at 5.37, 10 J-C Peraud (Fr) AG2R La Mondiale at 5.39, 11 J Rodriguez Oliver (Sp) Katusha at 5.48, 12 J Fuglsang (Den) Astana Pro Team at same time, 13 D Martin (Rep Ire) Garmin-Sharp at 5.52, 14 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 6.54, 15 M Nieve Ituralde (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 8.04, 16 M Rogers (Aus) Team Saxo-Tinkoff at 8.28, 17 A Schleck (Lux) RadioShack Leopard at 8.32, 18 D Moreno Fernandez (Sp) Katusha at 9.34, 19 M Monfort (Bel) RadioShack Leopard at 10.16, 20 I Anton Hernandez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 10.48.
Selected 88 P Kennaugh (GB) Sky Procycling 1hr 04mins 40secs, 97 D Millar (GB) Garmin-Sharp at 1.12.50, 149 M Cavendish (GB) Omega Pharma-Quick Step at 1.44.09, 162 I Stannard (GB) Sky Procycling at 1.51.42, 172 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 1.56.34.