Spaniard Alejandro Valverde drew first blood in his bid to win the Tour de France by pulling on the yellow jersey for the first time after a thrilling first stage in Plumelec on Saturday.
Valverde, riding for Caisse d'Epargne, punched his way past Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen late on the final climb leading to the uphill finish of the 197.5km stage to claim just his second stage win on the race.
The 28-year-old Spaniard now has a one-second overall lead over yellow jersey favourite Cadel Evans of Australia, who finished sixth on a stage which saw all the big favourites in a desperate dash to stay near the front. Valverde is considered one of the best at winning the hilly races that finish on an incline - a fact the Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic champion was quick to confirm.
And as one of the yellow jersey favourites, he put some excitement into the race opener which started without a time trial prologue for the first time in over 40 years.
"The stage suited me perfectly," said the Spaniard, whose last stage win on the race goes back to his 10th stage victory at Courchevel in the Alps in 2005. "At the end it was a case of calculating the distance and the timing, and I got it right."
Defending the race lead will not be a priority for Valverde - for now at least.
"It's great for me and the team, who worked really hard for me today, but we won't be taking any unnecessary risks," he added. "The most important thing is to have it in Paris."
Kirchen had given his newly-named Columbia team the chance of a dream start to the Tour when he attacked late on the 1.7km Cadoudal climb in a bid to counter Germany's Stefan Schumacher. But the Luxembourger, one of several outsiders for this year's yellow jersey, was stunned by Valverde's late charge in the final 250 metres.
"I attacked when I thought it was best to but when I saw Valverde come past me there was nothing I could do," said Kirchen, who is hoping to enter the yellow jersey fray after his seventh place overall finish last year.
After Valverde's team had played a role in closing the gap to an eight-man breakaway, the Columbia team were dominant at the front in the final kilometres to get Kirchen prepared for the finale.
In the end, Columbia team manager Bob Stapleton admitted they had been beaten by the best.
"I'm sure Kim is a bit disappointed because he could probably feel it and taste it (yellow jersey), then Valverde ... a rocket ship right past him," he said. "He closed a huge gap of about 100 metres in 50 metres. Pretty explosive."
French riders make first move
Lilian Jégou was part of the early break
With the first stage passing through the home town of France's last winner, Bernard Hinault, in 1985, it took only two kilometres for one of French riders to attack.
Lilian Jégou took seven other riders with him, and they went on to build a maximum lead of just over eight minutes, at the 29km mark. But their bid was condemned by the peloton's yellow jersey ambitions, and the crosswinds didn't help either. The last of the escapees were reeled in with 7.5km to go.
Jégou later picked up the jersey for being the most aggressive rider on the day, and conceded that their eight-minute lead was never going to be enough.
"We would have had to have a lead of 10-15 minutes to get to the finish without being caught," said the Française des Jeux rider.
Another Frenchman, Thomas Voeckler, was part of the eight-man break and picked up the polka dot jersey for the race's best climber.
Française des Jeux rider Philippe Gilbert of Belgium will wear the green jersey after his second place finish on the stage - but only because points competition leader Valverde is in yellow.
Cadel Evans kept out of trouble
Cadel Evans, the yellow jersey favourite, finished sixth on the stage. But with no time bonuses on this year's race - usually awarded to the top stage finishers - he is now just one second behind Valverde overall.
For Silence-Lotto team manager Herman Frison, the most important thing is keeping Evans out of trouble.
"It's not a problem for us that Valverde has got the yellow jersey at this stage. We knew he was one of the favourites to win the stage," he said. "It's early days yet. What matters for us is having the yellow jersey in Paris."
Valverde will feel exactly the same, but is now feeling "tranquilo" after achieving one of his objectives so far.
"I'll be feeling quite relaxed now because I've achieved two of my aims at the Tour already: winning a stage and wearing the yellow jersey," he said.
Sunday's second stage is a 164.5km ride over similarly undulating terrain from nearby Auray to St Brieuc on the coast - and is more likely to finish in a bunch sprint.
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.
© AFP 2008