Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) overcame a crash to sprint to stage one victory at Paris-Nice and claim the first yellow jersey of the 2014 race.
Bouhanni edged out John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Gianni Meersman (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) at the end of a crash-filled opening day which saw several general classification contenders lose time.
Bouhanni, who crashed out of last year’s race while in the yellow jersey, was among the riders to go down, suffering a knee injury which required several visits to the doctor’s car.
However, when it came to the final sprint, adrenalin kicked in for the Frenchman as he came round Degenkolb and Meersman to earn his second win of the season and first on the WorldTour.
Earlier in the day, Christophe Laborie (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) forged a lone escape almost from the off and was allowed to build a lead of more than ten minutes early on.
He led over the day’s two category three climbs to ensure he took an early lead in the King of the Mountains classification, with Britain’s Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE) – on his WorldTour debut – leading the bunch over Cote de Vert to pick up two climbing points of his own.
Several crashes in the peloton disrupted the stage, with Bouhanni among the first to fall before Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) and Lampre-Merida duo Mattia Cattaneo and Jose Serpa also hit the deck.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), considered one of the pre-race favourites, was the only rider forced to abandon, however, with the American succumbing to illness.
Several leading contenders lost time after another crash on the finishing circuit, with Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Tour Down Under winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Andy Shleck (Trek Factory Racing) all stuck in the chasing group.
Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar) and Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) were also on the wrong side of the split, with Belkin, Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Giant-Shimano forcing the pace at the front of the bunch.
Like a lot of guys, unfortunately I got caught up in a stupid crash on the last lap. Today’s finish circuit was a circus. #ParisNice
— Simon Gerrans (@simongerrans) March 9, 2014
Laborie had also led through the first intermediate sprint point, but was caught with 50km remaining, allowing Meersman to pick up the full time bonus at the second sprint.
With the leading group staying together after the crash, and the chasers unable to latch back on, the sprint trains took control at the front.
Giant-Shimano’s sprint train were the first to make a move, hitting the front in the final two kilometres but it was Meersman who led the sprint out.
With Degenkolb forced to come round several riders, and Meersman launching his attack too early, it was left to Bouhanni to power to victory and into the yellow jersey.
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who has taken over the team leadership following Richie Porte’s late switch to Tirreno-Adriatico to replace the injured Chris Froome, finished in the front group in 16th but lies fifth overall having picked up a one second time bonus at the intermediate sprint to make a strong start to the race.
Meanwhile, the large chasing group containing Gerrans, Voeckler, Bardet and Hushovd finished one minute and nine seconds behind the leaders, with Andy Schleck a further 41 seconds back to severely dent his overall ambitions.
Paris-Nice 2014: stage one – result
1) Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) – FDJ.fr – 3.53.11
2) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Shimano – ST
3) Gianni Meersman (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
4) Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (ESP) – Movistar
5) Tyler Farrar (USA) – Garmin-Sharp
6) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Team Europcar
7) Luca Wackermann (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
8) Fabio Felline (ITA) – Trek Factory Racing
9) Fabio Sabatini (ITA) – Cannondale
10) Francesco Gavazzi (ITA) – Astana
1) Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) – FDJ.fr – 3:53:01
2) Gianni Meersman (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +1”
3) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Shimano +4”
4) Greg Van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing +8”
5) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +9”
6) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – IAM Cycling – ST
7) Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (ESP) – Movistar +10”
8) Tyler Farrar (USA) – Garmin-Sharp – ST
9) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Team Europcar
10) Luca Wackermann (ITA) – Lampre-Merida