SERAING, Belgium - Rising cycling star Peter Sagan of Slovakia won the first stage of the Tour de France on Sunday ahead of Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, who retained the overall lead.
Title contenders Bradley Wiggins of Britain and defending champion Cadel Evans trailed close behind in the pack after the 198-kilometer (123-mile) loop from Liege to suburban Seraing featuring five low-grade climbs.
The 22-year-old Sagan, who is one of cycling's most promising riders, placed his hands on his shoulders as he collected his first Tour stage win in a three-man sprint ahead of Cancellara in second and Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway in third. It was a spirited defense of the yellow jersey by the Swiss rider, who many expect to fall behind in the later, mountain stages of the race.
The top standings among the leading pre-race contenders didn't change much, though some speedsters who fared well in Saturday's brief prologue, lost ground after the first stage. RadioShack Nissan rider Cancellara, who won the prologue, leads Sky's Wiggins in second and France's Sylvain Chavanel of Omega Pharma-Quickstep in third - with each seven seconds behind.
Evans, the Australian leader of the BMC team, trails 17 seconds behind the Swiss leader. He rose to eighth place overall as others slipped back in crash traffic or because of a hilly final climb that split the pack during the last three kilometers.
That was when the stage turned into a three-man race. Sagan hugged the wheel of Cancellara, doing the hard work of leading into the wind, then whipped around him with less than 150 meters (yards) before the finish to win in 4 hours, 58 minutes, 19 seconds.
"I am really, really happy," Sagan said. "I was the only one who could follow (Cancellara), I was tight behind him. I was just happy to stay on his wheel."
It was the Liquigas-Cannondale rider's 13th stage victory this season, after winning in races as diverse as the Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Switzerland and the Tour of California - where he won five of the race's eight stages.
Sagan, who said his victory gesture was just "for fun," is the youngest rider to win a Tour stage since Lance Armstrong won Stage 8 in 1993 at the age of 21 - his first of 22 career stage victories. The youngest stage winner of all time is Italy's Fabio Battesini, who was 19 when he won one in the 1931 Tour.
Asked about whether he has the potential to become the next Armstrong, Sagan blushed and replied while laughing nervously: "I would like to be, but I'm so young it's impossible to know what the future will be."
At least two crashes marred Sunday's stage amid escalating tensions within the pack near the finish, where roadside crowds drew in to get a glimpse of the whirring cyclists.
High-profile riders including Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez and Michael Rogers of Australia went down in one late spill, but got back up. The bad luck continued to stick with Germany's Tony Martin, who went down in a crash early Sunday before recovering. The world time-trial champion popped a flat and lost in the prologue the day before.
At one point, with his BMC team leader Evans riding in his wake, Marcus Burghardt of Germany caused his bike to jump to avoid a plastic bottle in a downhill patch about 17 kilometers before the finish.
Six breakaway riders jumped out of the pack after the first kilometer, and held onto a lead until less than 10 kilometers to go - when the speeding pack overtook all the escapees.
Wiggins wore the best-sprinter's green jersey after placing second in Saturday's prologue - an honor granted to him because Cancellara cannot wear both the green and the yellow jersey.
Evans said a conservative start by the pack set the stage for a "hectic" finish during the final climb. He took a chance with a burst of speed with about two kilometers to go, after team scouting report led him to believe he could nibble some seconds from his main rivals. But instead, he ran into a headwind and the pack was able to keep pace.
"The first stages of the Tour: Everyone's so keen to get going, and everyone's so nervous," Evans said, and thanked his BMC teammates to help keep him near the front, and away from the jitters in the peloton.
Monday's second stage takes the pack on a mostly flat 207.5-kilometer jaunt slicing west across Belgium from Vise to Tournai, which could favor a sprint finish.