Luke Rowe emerged from a crash-filled finale to take a superb first professional victory on stage one at the Tour of Britain.
The peloton had found itself split to pieces on the run into Norfolk Showground and again heading into the final kilometre with a crash involving world champion Mark Cavendish.
Rowe and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins were well-positioned on the front for Team Sky and it was the young Welsh neo-pro who held his nerve in the final metres to take an impressive win in front of a packed crowd.
The 22-year-old also became the first recipient of the IG Markets leader's jersey courtesy of bonus second on the line, Rowe having held off Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) at the finish with Russell Downing (Endura Racing) rounding out the podium places.
A number of sprinters went down after a tight right-hander coming into the park finish, riders taking to the grass to stay upright in the melee after a crash earlier had already split the bunch in two.
One to remember
After the stage we caught up with Rowe who admitted the team had to quickly switch tactics inside the final kilometre.
“It was great to take the win today, especially getting called in at the last minute makes it all the more special really," he said. "Obviously it was meant for Cav. We had the lead-out and it would have been perfect. I felt good and strong but it’s unfortunate for Cav. That’s our sport. It shows how unpredictable it is and anything can happen.
“It shows we’ve got a strong team and any one of the six of us on our day can get a result and perform overall. We’ve got a really strong group here and that’s just the first day done and dusted. Hopefully we can go on and have some GC ambitions amongst the team.
“I’ve raced all over the world over the last five years. Although it’s only my first year as pro I’ve never raced in crowds that big before. I’ve raced at some of the Classics in Belgium and they don’t come near to what we saw today. It just shows how our sport is growing how it’s gone from strength to strength.
With the gold jersey now on his back Rowe is looking forward to the days ahead, adding: “I’d like to think I could spend a few days in the jersey. Obviously if someone else was to win tomorrow they could possible take it.
"I’m just going to take it day by day and keep it for as long as possible. Realistically I’m not sure if I can climb with the top boys when it comes to crunch time. We’ve also got the fastest guy here in Cav. I’ve had my bit of fun and hopefully now we can look after Cav and get him across the line first tomorrow.”
Earlier huge crowds had gathered in Ipswich as the 2012 edition of the race got under way with 200km on the agenda.
The four riders went away as the peloton rolled out, Kristian House (Rapha Condor-Sharp), Niels Wytinck (An Post-Sean Kelly), Rony Martias (Saur-Sojasun) and Jonathan Clarke (UnitedHealthcare) soaking up the sprint and mountain points along a spectacular fan-lined route in the south-east of England.
Back in the pack it was Team Sky setting tempo on the front, pegging the gap at a shade over seven minutes before Garmin-Sharp arrived to lend a hand with the pace-setting duties.
The gap was slowly brought back down, the quartet eventually pegged at one minute on run for home.
With 20km to go with the break were finally caught and the race sparked into action, a number of crashes in the bunch on narrow roads causing the bunch to split clean in half. At the same time Endura Racing hit the front with numbers to line things out on the run into the finish.
With sprint trains massing on the front things unravelled heading under the flamme rouge, a touch sending Cavendish down hard and causing carnage behind. The Manxman was up quickly and rolled across the line but it was still a Team Sky rider taking top honours with Rowe.
Crowds out in force
Jeremy Hunt spent huge chunks of the day on the front of the bunch and summed up the opening stage.
"It was a long hard day and we were riding for Cav but then Luke came up with the goods, which was lucky, and it worked out really well," he told ITV4.
"It was an enjoyable day, so many people were out there. It was unbelievable, I've never seen anything like it in the UK. I remember 10 years ago when this race started there was no-one watching the race. Now it's unbelievable.
On the day he announced his intention to retire at the end of the year Hunt added: "I'm just here, I'm enjoying it, riding on the front and reminiscing about the old days. It's great."
We caught up with Sports Director Servais Knaven on the bus after the stage for an update on Cavendish and his thoughts on an action-packed opening stage.
“It was good that Luke could get up there for the win. There’s a bit of mixed emotions but we are glad that Cav is okay. It’s great for Luke and for the team that we were able to win the stage.
“Cav is okay. He has a few cuts and bruises but he will be okay. He has shown that he is going well and he was in a good position when the crash happened.
“It was quite tricky coming into the finish on narrow roads. We knew how the finish was and that the road was about five metres wide but it was a little bit tighter than in the road book.
“We’ve got the jersey now and we’re already looking forward tomorrow. The crowds here and the support the team has had has been amazing.”