|Europcar team rider Vincent Jerome was a victim during a crash-plagued opening stage [EPA]
Phillipe Gilbert won Saturday's first stage of the Tour de France to take the yellow jersey, while defending champion Alberto Contador lost more than a minute because of a late crash.
The Belgian champion, who dazzled fans by winning three classics in April, left it late before speeding ahead from the pack and kissing his jersey as he crossed the line.
"It was the last 500 meters, I had a lead ... (and) I went for it," Gilbert said.
"It was an extreme effort and I was able to take advantage."
Gilbert, who has notched 13 victories between race and stage wins this year, had been a favourite to win the opening stage.
He clocked 4 hours, 41 minutes, 31 seconds for the sun-baked 191.5 kilometer ride from La Barre-de-Monts to Mont des Alouettes in the western Vendee region.
Schleck v Contador
Two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia was second, three seconds back - making him the best performer among the expected title contenders - and Norway's Thor Hushovd was third, six seconds off the pace.
The 3,430-kilometer race that ends July 24 on Paris' Champs-Elysees is shaping up as a battle among riders like Contador and last year's runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
|Gilbert of Belgium celebrates on the podium with the leader's yellow jersey after the first stage [EPA]
Three-time champion Contador, a Spaniard, beat Schleck by just 39 seconds last year.
However, they both ran into trouble towards the end of Saturday's stage.
With about nine kilometers left, Astana rider Maxim Iglinskiy knocked shoulders with a fan on the roadside, causing a mass crash that delayed Contador and split the pack. Around two dozen riders were sent tumbling onto the Tarmac and about 40 riders stayed in front.
The Spaniard finished 1:20 after Gilbert and is 82nd overall.
Schleck too got slowed down by yet another crash near the end, and finished the stage in 39th place. But according to race rules about crashes within last three kilometers, he was credited with the same time as the pack he was in - six seconds behind Gilbert - and placed 33rd overall.
Among other possible title contenders, Belgium's Jurgen Van den Broeck lies fifth overall, Levi Leipheimer of the United States is 38th, and Briton Bradley Wiggins trails in 50th place - all six seconds behind the Belgian
A total of five crashes took down riders in the nervous debut stage, including Movistar leader David Arroyo of Spain and Linus Gerdemann, the Leopard Trek rider who won the Tour of Luxembourg this year.
Belgium's Jelle Vanendert paid for his courtesy. Near the front of the main pack around the 63 kilometer mark, the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider held out his left arm to warn those behind him of a roadway median - a gesture that caused him to lose control of his bike. He tumbled to the ground with his helmet bouncing and his sunglasses skidding away, while several others fell in his wake.
All of those involved returned to the race. While the stage was mostly flat, the end was tricky. Riders had to scale the bumpy Mont des Alouettes - a three-kilometer hill - up to the finish, so it was not tailor-made for traditional sprinters.
In a break with recent tradition, the Tour opener this year was not an individual time-trial prologue, with riders instead embarking right away on a full stage.