Gilbert wins first stage of Tour de France

Belgium's Philippe Gilbert seized the Tour de France race leader's yellow jersey with victory in Les Herbiers today.

Belgium's Philippe Gilbert seized the Tour de France race leader's yellow jersey with victory in Les Herbiers today.

The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider was favourite for the 191.5-kilometre first stage from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes, overlooking Les Herbiers, as the Tour opened with a road stage, rather than the usual prologue time-trial, for the just the second time since 1966.

And Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) did not disappoint, finishing three seconds clear of two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), with world champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) third, six seconds behind.

Ireland's Nicolas Roche, of the Ag2r La Mondiale team, finished a respectable 19th, 4h 41' 37", six seconds behind Gilbert.

Team Sky's Geraint Thomas was sixth, finishing on the same time as Hushovd, with his leader Bradley Wiggins conceding more than a minute on the stage along with defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) and Leopard Trek's Andy Schleck.

Gilbert will seek to defend the lead in tomorrow's 23km team time-trial in Les Essarts, but British squad Team Sky, HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervelo will also be optimistic of victory and Thomas could take the maillot jaune.

A three-man break launched as soon as the ceremonial start across the Passage du Gois causeway was over, with Frenchmen Jeremy Roy (FDJ) and Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar) joined by Dutchman Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil).

The Omega Pharma-Lotto and Garmin-Cervelo teams kept the breakaway trio within striking distance early in the day.

The HTC-Highroad and Lampre-ISD teams also moved to the front with the day's intermediate sprint approaching after 87km of racing.

After the escape scooped the first three places, Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) took fourth and 13 points ahead of Andre Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), with Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 11th for five points and last year's green jersey winner Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) a place and a point behind the Briton, who appeared to sit up.

It was the first bout in the race for the points classification's maillot vert, but an even bigger prize was to come at the finish - the fabled yellow jersey.

Again Omega Pharma-Lotto and Garmin-Cervelo, riding for classics star Gilbert and Hushovd, respectively, took the initiative to give chase.

The escape held an advantage of little more than four minutes with 60km remaining, but the deficit tumbled as the finale approached.

Jurgen van de Walle of Omega Pharma-Lotto did much of the work, blood dripping down his leg and arm after an early tumble to the tarmac, and was to get his reward at the finish.

With 18km remaining, the escapees were absorbed by the peloton before, with 9km to go, an Astana rider was clipped by a spectator, dressed in yellow, and the peloton fractured.

Around 50 riders were able to go clear and the remainder - including Contador - were delayed.

Gilbert's Omega Pharma-Lotto team attacked and Cancellara responded.

But the Belgian overtook the Swiss time-trial ace to surge to his first Tour stage victory, with Evans narrowly behind.

Hushovd finished third to take the early advantage in his bid to regain the green jersey, but the real impact was on the overall classification.

Contador, the favourite for the Tour despite riding under the weight of a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing into his positive test at last year's race, one minute 20 seconds behind Gilbert, alongside Schleck.

Wiggins (Team Sky), who was fourth in the 2009 Tour, finished in 63rd position, conceding nine more seconds than Contador.

Thomas' success meant the 25-year-old from Cardiff took the white jersey for best young rider.

The Team Sky rider earned the same honour in the opening week of the 2010 Tour.

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