Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland held on to the Tour de France yellow jersey Sunday after being pipped at the finish line of the first stage by streetwise Slovakian Peter Sagan.
RadioShack rider Cancellara took the race leader’s jersey thanks to a commanding opening day win on Saturday when he repeated his Liege feat of 2004 to claim the fourth prologue win of his career.
But despite leaving a gaping hole when he pulled away from the peloton with 1.5km remaining on the 2.4 km-long uphill finish, the Swiss was upstaged by the Liquigas team’s Slovakian champion.
Sagan, a sprinter known for his climbing abilities, soon attached himself to Cancellara’s back wheel and for the remaining 1200 metres refused to collaborate by taking a relay at the front to allow the Swiss a breather.
Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky, meanwhile, caught up with the pair to create a three-man sprint at the finish.
But after Cancellara launched his sprint inside the final 300 metres, Sagan simply came out from his slipstream and pulled in front to claim his maiden win on the race and continue his impressive season so far.
At 22 years old Sagan is the youngest rider on the race after Frenchman Thibaut Pinot of FDJ. Probably more significantly, he is the second youngest rider, after Lance Armstrong in 1993, to win a stage on the race.
Having claimed an impressive five stage wins at the Tour of California as well as four victories at the Tour of Switzerland, Sagan was only too happy to open his account on the Tour.
It was even more sweet as he missed out on contending victory on the prologue when he lost precious seconds after his foot came out of his cleat pedal.
“I’m very happy, especially after yesterday’s incident at the prologue,” said Sagan.
“My legs were feeling better today. I want to thank my teammates, they did a lot of good work in the last kilometres.
“Before the race today I spoke with my team coach and manager, and they said I had to look out for only one rider: Cancellara.
“He had a great prologue, and that showed he’s got good condition. Also, this stage suited him.”
Cancellara now leads overall race favourite Bradley Wiggins by 07secs in the general classification, with Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel third on the same time. Australia’s defending champion Cadel Evans, of BMC, remains 17secs off the pace and 10secs behind Wiggins.
The Swiss, completing his 22nd day in the race’s yellow jersey – eight years after wearing it in Liege for the first time in his career – could only lament that his strength ultimately became his downfall.
“Today was more about defending the jersey than winning the stage, and the team did a great job with absolutely no help from other teams,” said Cancellara.
“I thought attacking would be the best defence and 500 metres from the line I wasn’t going to slow down. If I go for something, I go all the way. I’m not going to give up, that’s not me.
“Maybe Sagan, eight years from now, will do the same thing.”