Peter Sagan (Liguigas-Cannondale) has won stage one of the 2012 Tour de France.
The Slovak champion timed his sprint perfectly to win the rolling 198km stage from Liege to Seraing.
The yellow jersey, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek), finished second after a hugely impressive effort to ride his rivals off his wheel, ahead of Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, who rounded off the podium at the end of a windy and occasionally wet day through the Ardennes Forest.
A thrilling final 10km saw a race-long breakaway of six riders caught and attacks launched from almost every quarter, including from defending champion, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing).
But it was Sagan, already enjoying a hugely impressive season, with multiple stage victories at the tours of California and Switzerland, who carried the day.
Six riders went clear almost from the start and remained out front for most of the stage, sharing the major points for the King of the Mountains and sprint competitions.
Perhaps significantly, Mark Cavendish (Team Sky), chose to contest the points for seventh place at the intermediate sprint stage at Érezée, losing out to Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEDGE), but finishing ahead of Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol).
The gap to the six leaders was reduced sharply to about three minutes by the acceleration required to gain positions for the intermediate sprint. The bunch remained relaxed, however, with the yellow and green jerseys of Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) at its head, and the breakaway quickly regained 30 seconds.
With 65km to go, Jens Voight (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek), began to drive the peloton in pursuit of the disciplined leading group, and after a further 15km the gap had been reduced to just one minute and forty seconds. Voight and teammate Yaroslav Popovych remained at the head of the bunch for some time, with few rival teams willing to share the workload.
Some 30km later, the leaders retained a gap of one minute and 15 seconds. The peloton appeared able to haul in the escapees at will, but seemed reluctant to do so, perhaps fearing a flurry of counter attacks that could ruin the puncheurs’ party.
BMC Racing suddenly appeared en masse at the front of the bunch 30km from home, making an early statement of their intent to haul Gilbert into contention for an attempt at victory on his home turf, and keeping Evans from danger in the often dangerous closing kilometres.
As if to justify their activity, two crashes followed in close succession at around 22km from the finish. Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) was the principal victim of the first crash, with Maxime Monfort (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) among those who went down in the second.
Evans moved up to third wheel behind teammates led by Marcus Burghardt with 12km to go, while the six-man breakaway clung to a lead of just 18 seconds.
Every team with a sprinter suddenly wanted a place at head of the bunch, with Orica-GreenEDGE briefly heading the pack in a bid to position Matt Goss as the catch loomed at 9.3km. Maxime Bouet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) launched one final effort from the head of the breakaway before it was consumed by a voracious peloton, but was merely delaying the inevitable.
Wiggins was suddenly isolated with 6.5km to go, desperately clinging to a place near the front while Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) unexpectedly headed the train, perhaps riding for Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
George Hincapie (BMC Racing) pulled Evans to the head of the bunch with 2.5km to go, allowing the vigilant Sagan to catch a ride on the Australian’s wheel. Evans seized the initative as they began the climb, but was soon passed by Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) whose own effort was overshadowed by the yellow jersey of Cancellara and Sagan, who were joined as they drove clear by Boasson Hagen.
As they began the final kilometre, Cancellara, Sagan and Boasson-Hagen hung perilously in front of the chasing pack. Sagan and Boasson-Hagen both refused to help Cancellara, before Sagan broke clear, followed by the yellow jersey and the Norwegian champion.
Monday’s second stage takes the riders on a flat 207.5km parcours from Visé to Tournai.
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Liquigas-Cannondale 4.58.19
2) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – RadioShack-Nissan-Trek
3)Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – Team Sky
4) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing
5) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Rabobank
6) Alejandro Valverde (SPA) – Movistar
7) Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
8) Daniel Martin (IRL) – Garmin-Sharp
9) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp
10) Dries Devenyns (BEL) – Omega Pharma-QuickStep
1) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – RadioShack-Nissan-Trek – 5.05.32
2) Bradley Wiggins (GBR) – Team Sky +07”
3) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – Omega Pharma-QuickStep
4) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing Team +10”
5) Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – Team Sky +11”
6) Denis Menchov (RUS) – Katusha +13”
7) Philippe Gilbert (BEL) – BMC Racing
8) Cadel Evans (AUS) – BMC Racing +17”
9) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Liquigas-Cannondale +18”
10) Ryder Hesjedal (CAN) – Garmin-Sharp