Defending champion Alberto Contador lost one minute, 20 seconds after a huge crash brought down nearly half the peloton as Philippe Gilbert sprinted to his first Tour de France stage victory.
An Astana rider clipped a spectator as the teams jostled for position with 8km remaining and Contador was among the general classification contenders to sit on the wrong end of the split.
Fabian Cancellara launched an early bid for the line on the finishing climb to Mont des Alouettes but Omega Pharma-Lotto rider Gilbert, the pre-stage favourite, rode away from the two-time Paris-Roubaix winner to seal victory and wear the yellow jersey.
Cadel Evans finished second, three seconds adrift of Gilbert, to strike an early blow to Contador’s hopes of a fourth Tour de France title, while Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas claimed sixth, six seconds back, and will wear the Tour’s best young rider’s jersey for the second year running.
Bradley Wiggins and Andy Schleck were among a group to crash within the final 3km but race rules dictate they, and indeed all riders to finish from fourth to 78th, end the day with the same time as third-placed Thor Hushovd, six seconds behind Gilbert, and, like Evans, put significant daylight between themselves and Contador.
The Tour started with a 191.5km road stage from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes rather than the traditional prologue, finishing with a 2.2km category four climb, averaging 4.7 per cent.
That looked primed for a punchy Classics rider like recently-crowned Belgian champion Gilbert, who started the day having not lost a race for 86 days, or world champion Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo).
Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar) instigated the day’s break at the first attempt and, joined by Jérémy Roy (FDJ) and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM), opened up a seven minute advantage over the peloton.
Roy swept up the maximum 20 points at the intermediate sprint, followed by Westra (17) and Quemeneur (15). Tyler Farrar led the peloton sprint to open his green jersey account with 13 points, while Mark Cavendish earned five points from 11th place.
Omega Pharma-Lotto drove the peloton in aid of Gilbert, who earned a hat-trick of Ardennes Classics victories in the spring, while Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, HTC-Highroad’s Paris-Roubaix winner Matt Goss and Hushovd were among the riders to jostle for position at the front as the break succumbed with 18km remaining.
Europcar took over and ramped up the pace with two-time Tour de France stage winner Thomas Voeckler in mind, another rider who would have targeted the Tour’s opening stage when the 2011 route was announced last October.
But the stage was blown to pieces when a spectator, facing the wrong wrong, strayed into the road.
Evans, Schleck, Ivan Basso, Jurgen Van den Broeck and all five Brits – Wiggins, Thomas, Mark Cavenish, Ben Swift and David Millar – riding the Tour were among the general classification contenders to survive, immediately gaining 30 seconds on Contador before turning the screw on the Spaniard and increasing the advantage.
Cancellara unleashed his attack with more than 500m remanining but soon sat up and Gilbert took over to sprint to the line in typically robust fashion, surviving a late attack from Evans, while Hushovd completed the podium.
Team Sky and HTC-Highroad will be the favourites to put a rider in the maillot jaune after Sunday’s 23km team time trial.
Full results on letour.fr
|1.||GILBERT Philippe||32||OMEGA PHARMA – LOTTO||4h 41′ 31″|
|2.||EVANS Cadel||141||BMC RACING TEAM||4h 41′ 34″||+ 00′ 03″|
|3.||HUSHOVD Thor||51||TEAM GARMIN – CERVELO||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|4.||ROJAS Jose Joaquin||88||MOVISTAR TEAM||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|5.||VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen||31||OMEGA PHARMA – LOTTO||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|6.||THOMAS Geraint||117||SKY PROCYCLING||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|7.||KLÖDEN Andréas||74||TEAM RADIOSHACK||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|8.||TAARAMAE Rein||151||COFIDIS LE CREDIT EN LIGNE||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|9.||HORNER Christopher||72||TEAM RADIOSHACK||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06″|
|10.||MARTIN Tony||175||HTC – HIGHROAD||4h 41′ 37″||+ 00′ 06|