Rising Slovak cycling star Peter Sagan won the first stage of the Tour de France yesterday ahead of Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, who retained the overall lead.
Title contenders Bradley Wiggins and defending champion Cadel Evans trailed close behind in the pack after the 198-kilometre loop from Liege to suburban Seraing featuring five low-grade climbs.
Sagan, at age 21 one of cycling's most promising riders, placed his hands on his shoulders as he collected his first Tour stage win in a three-man sprint ahead of Cancellara in second and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway in third.
Cancellara, who won the Tour's opening-day prologue on Saturday, leads Wiggins overall by seven seconds. France's Sylvain Chavanel is third with the same time. Evans trails 17 seconds behind the Swiss leader.
The 198-rider pack split up during a final climb in the last three kilometres, when the stage turned into a three-man race. Sagan hugged the wheel of Cancellara, doing the hard work of leading into the wind - then whipped around him with less than 150 metres before the finish to win in 4 hours, 58 minutes, 19 seconds.
"I am really, really happy," Sagan said. "I was the only one who could follow [Cancellara], I was tight behind him. I was just happy to stay on his wheel."
It was the Liquigas-Cannondale rider's 13th stage victory this season, after winning in races as diverse as the Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Switzerland and the Tour of California - where he won five of the race's eight stages.
At least two crashes marred yesterday's stage amid escalating tensions within the pack near the finish, where roadside crowds drew in to get a glimpse of the cyclists.
High-profile riders including Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez and Michael Rogers of Australia went down in one late spill, but got back up. The bad luck continued to stick with Germany's Tony Martin, who went down in a crash early yesterday before recovering.
The world time-trial champion popped a flat tyre and lost in the prologue the day before.
At one point, with his BMC team leader Evans riding in his wake, Marcus Burghardt of Germany caused his bike to jump to avoid a plastic bottle in a downhill patch about 17 kilometres before the finish. Six breakaway riders jumped out of the pack after the first kilometre, and held onto a lead until less than 10 kilometres to go - when the speeding pack overtook all the escapees.
Wiggins wore the best-sprinter's green jersey after placing second in Saturday's prologue - an honour granted to him because Cancellara cannot wear both the green and the yellow jersey. Marcel Kittel will begin his quest to push British sprint king Mark Cavendish all the way in the race for the green jersey.
Stage 2, from Vise to Tournai, is the first tailored for the sprinters, and German Kittel said: "I did a few races with [Cavendish] this year, the Tour of Oman then the Ster ZLM Toer. I'm not going to say it's going to be easy. He's the top sprinter but it's possible to at least challenge him."
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