HUY, Belgium -- British rider Chris Froome took the Tour de France leader's yellow jersey after finishing second behind Spanish veteran Joaquim Rodriguez in Monday's crash-marred third stage, as a second straight day of chaos caused around 20 riders to fall and several to quit.
The crash happened with about 37 miles remaining, forcing the stage to be neutralized and then stopped altogether for nearly 20 minutes while organizers allowed those who fell to catch up.
"This was an exceptional decision due to exceptional circumstances,'' Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said. "All our ambulances and medical vehicles were mobilized at the back of the race because of the crashes. The riders at the front would have been without assistance if we had not stopped the peloton.''
With the race moving from neighboring Netherlands into Belgium, Stage 3 was 99 miles from Anvers to Huy. The stage featured four short and sharp climbs, but the crash took place before any of those when Frenchman William Bonnet went down and several riders tumbled around him.
All of the main Tour contenders avoided the crash, unlike Fabian Cancellara, who started the day in the yellow jersey and ended it in agony after being one of some 20 riders who fell.
The 2013 Tour winner Froome almost caught Rodriguez near the top of the day's final climb, but the Spaniard held on for his second career Tour stage win five years after his first.
"I didn't expect to be in yellow this early on. Couldn't be a better feeling," said Froome, whose title defense ended when he crashed early in last year's race. "I may look calm on the outside, but I assure you I'm not. A huge thank you to my teammates. They turned themselves inside out to keep me at the front."
Froome now leads German rider Tony Martin -- who is not a threat for overall victory -- by one second and is 13 seconds ahead of American rider Tejay van Garderen, who is shaping up as a dangerous outsider.
More importantly, Froome's touted main rivals are lagging.
Froome is 36 seconds clear of two-time champion Alberto Contador of Spain, 1:38 ahead of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy and 1:56 ahead of Nairo Quintana of Colombia, the Tour runner-up two years ago.
"I'd rather be in this position that I'm in now rather than having to make up time," Froome said. "I just hope to get through these next few days without any major issues."
Monday's heavy crash took its toll; five riders had to withdraw from the race.
Cancellara was one of the last to go down, leaping into the air with his bike attached to him then landing with a thud -- luckily on the grass -- and skidding on his side. Cancellara got back on his bike and finished the stage but announced later Monday that he was withdrawing from the race after being diagnosed with fractures in two vertebrae in his lower back.
Alain Gallopin, a sports director for Cancellara's Trek Factory Racing team, said the Swiss rider was "groggy'' after hitting the ground.
TV replays showed the race leader being thrown over his handlebars and landing on the grass on the side of the road.He was transported to a local hospital, where a scan revealed the extent of his injuries.
"This is incredibly disappointing for me," said Cancellara, who suffered a similar injury in another crash earlier this season. "The team was on a high with the yellow jersey, and we were very motivated to defend it. We have had a lot of crashes and injuries since the start of the season and we finally had a great 24 hours, but now it's back to bad luck. One day you win, one day you lose."
Bonnet, who also had to withdraw, was taken off on a stretcher with a brace around his neck. Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin -- competing for the best young rider's white jersey -- Australian veteran Simon Gerrans and Russian Dmitry Kozontchuk withdrew from the race as well.
During Sunday's trek along the Dutch coastline, time gaps were made when heavy side winds caused a split in the front of the peloton.
This time, the weather was not to blame.
Bonnet lost control, and his bike slid forward and down.
Racing at tremendous speed on the flat, low roads of Belgium, it was impossible for those behind to slow down or get out of the way. One after the other they went up, down or sideways in a bewildering flash of colors, bobbing helmets, spokes and wheels.
The result was a tangled mess of bikes spewed in all directions on the side of the road, while some riders lay on their backs in the grass and others were curled up in agony on the hot tarmac.
As the pack ahead slowed down -- waiting stretched out in a narrow street -- riders started coming back into the race, cuts and bruises decorating their backs and legs. Cancellara grimaced in pain, Australian Michael Matthews looked to be in tears, and it was hard to see which team Johan Vansummeren was riding for given how shredded his shirt was.
The decision to stop the stage was criticized by Etixx-Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere, who asked for the president of the race jury, Guy Dobbelaere, to resign.
"People can say whatever they want. What I know is that many in the peloton were worried about the injured riders' condition,'' Prudhomme said.
The stage restarted for good at the top of the first climb, meaning there were about 31 miles remaining.
But it almost seemed like a training ride in slow motion for about 5 miles, as no rider wanted to speed up.
Finally, the pace stepped up again, and about a dozen riders surged ahead. Doubtless because of fatigue, the others let them go.
Stage 4 on Tuesday stays in Belgium's Walloon region, starting out from Seraing and ending in the northern French town of Cambrai 138.6 miles later, making it the longest stage of the race.
With 8 miles of cobblestone sections dotted around the route, it could also prove treacherous.
Given how Sunday and Monday went, riders will hardly be relishing it.
"It's been an incredible Tour so far, and there have been nerves and stress every day," Contador said. "[Tuesday] will be the same."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Rodriguez wins third stage marred by crash that knocks down 20 riders