Defending champion Cadel Evans and rival Bradley Wiggins successfully negotiated a crash-strewn first week of the Tour de France as some of their rivals for the Paris podium saw their hopes come to an end on stage six to Metz.
As Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) re-emphasised his stunning talent by claiming his third stage win of his maiden Tour, Evans (BMC Racing) and Wiggins (Team Sky) rolled in with the front group as behind them carnage unfolded.
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) retained the race lead, with Wiggins seven seconds behind in second place and Evans sixth, 17 seconds behind.
The holder of the maillot jaune could change as soon as tomorrow's seventh stage.
Cancellara said: "We're going uphill and it's going to be really, really hard. And I know already that it's going to be the end of my days in yellow."
Giro d'Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal will not inherit the race lead.
Hesjedal lost 13 minutes 24 seconds on the day as a result of a crash 26km from the end to effectively end his hopes of a Grand Tour double.
World champion Mark Cavendish also endured a troublesome day.
Isolated by a puncture after narrowly avoiding the crash and with Team Sky riding for Wiggins, the Manxman was denied an opportunity to contest the finish.
His wait for a 22nd Tour stage success goes on, while Sagan holds a 80-point lead over Cavendish in the points classification standings.
Garmin-Sharp's David Millar described the moment his team-mate Hesjedal's Tour bid ended as the Canadian tumbled from ninth in the standings, 18 seconds adrift, to 108th place.
"It was the scariest crash I've ever been in," said the 35-year-old Scot, riding in his 11th Tour and nursing bleeding cuts.
"We were doing 70 (kph) when it happened. God knows how it happened - some idiot.
"It shouldn't happen like that. Once it started happening we didn't even have a chance to really brake.
"We were banging into each other at 60, 70kph. I was lucky, I think, in that I was in the third wave.
"I started landing on guys, but bikes were hitting me, chain rings going up and over me and getting tangled up."
Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan), third in 2011, also lost time, as did Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD).
Evans or Wiggins could so easily have done so too, but their teams employed the same front-riding tactics as on stage five.
The yellow jersey contenders are sure to be whittled down again on the 199km seventh stage to La Planches des Belles Filles tomorrow, which concludes atop a category one climb, and in Monday's time-trial.
Evans said: "We'd normally say the real test starts tomorrow, but maybe it started today. I'm feeling pretty fresh at this point. It hasn't been the hardest first week we've had, that's for sure. Not since the Tours I've ridden at least - eight of them now.
"But now the guys' legs are starting to get softened and tomorrow will be the first real test of who has really come here for the overall contention."
It was anticipated the day would end in a sprint, with Cavendish to the fore, but he was among those delayed.
Cavendish will ride on, with his quest to draw level with Lance Armstrong and Andre Darrigade in fourth place in the all-time rankings of stage winners continuing.
The Briton was not the only rider to miss out on a record.
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) avoided the day's major incident after two earlier, more minor falls, and was in contention as the front group swept up the remnants of the day's four-man breakaway, with David Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp) caught with around 1.3km remaining.
Greipel, though, was unable to become the 12th rider to win three straight Tour stages as Sagan overpowered him in the finale, with the German second and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) third.
Sagan's talents were evident to all and he will be a major rival for Cavendish at the Olympic road race on July 28 and in the coming years.
"I want the green jersey and I think I can hold on to it all the way to Paris," said the 22-year-old Slovakian, who has 209 points to lead the points classification.
"This is already more than I ever expected. It's surprised me too.
"I wanted to do well but I need to say that this is only the start of the Tour de France and tomorrow is when the race really begins because it's the climbs and I think that after two weeks, by the start of the third week, it's going to be really hard.
"I think I did well today because the other sprinters are a little tired and maybe that's the key to this win."
Twenty seven riders were listed in the day's medical bulletin.
Four of them abandoned, reducing the field to 190, with Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Davide Vigano (Lampre-ISD), Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) and Wouter Poels (Vaconsoleil-DCM) withdrawing.
Danielson and his Garmin-Sharp team-mate Johan van Summeren were taken to Metz military hospital for further assessment.