Italy's Fabio Baldato won the first stage of his first Tour de France Sunday with a long, uphill power sprint that left Laurent Jalabert of France and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov of Uzbekistan gasping in his wake.
Jacky Durand barely held on to the overall lead, with two other little-known Frenchmen within two seconds of first place. "I had to fight up to the finish line," Durand said.
Swiss contender Tony Rominger finished sixth, while Miguel Indurain, seeking a fifth consecutive overall victory, was 12th, crossing the line in the leading group. The Spaniard remained a half-minute behind Durand in the standings.
For Baldato, it was a dream start for a Tour rookie.
His face contorted with pain, Baldato succeeded where many renowned sprinters failed.
"The last meters were terrible," he said. "That's just how it should be."
In a long uphill road to the finish line, Italy's Mario Cipollini and Belgian Wilfried Nelissen spent their strength too early and faded badly in the closing stages.
Jalabert, chasing victory in the Tour's first stage after having crashed out in the opener last year, took the lead with 200 meters left and the partisan crowd wildly cheered him on.
"That was the most dangerous moment, when Jalabert came," Baldato said.
Durand's Castorama team controlled the early part of the race, sending the 188 riders along the rainy, windswept Brittany coast at a slow pace.
Dutchman Erik Dekker broke away from the pack with about 45 miles remaining.
On the narrow, winding country roads in between the fishing ports, Dekker steadily built a lead of nearly two minutes 12 miles later.
But with about 12 miles left, Dekker was done, making room for a mad rush to the finish.
How long Durand will remain in the yellow jersey is uncertain. On this week's flat stages, the Tour awards bonuses of 20, 12 and eight seconds to be deducted from the overall elapsed time of the first three finishers. In addition, a handful of sprints throughout each daily stage award bonuses of six, four and two seconds to the first three men across.
Sunday's first of 20 stages covered a good part of the Cotes d'Armor region of northern Brittany, taking the coastal route and its rain and steady winds off the English Channel. From Dinan in the east to Lannion in the west, the distance was 233.5 kilometers (145 miles) of the 3,635 kilometers the Tour will travel before ending in Paris on July 23.
Sunday: Fabio Baldato of Italy edged Laurent Jalabert of France and Djamolidine Abdoujaparov of Uzbekistan in a sprint finish.
Today: Another flat stage from Perros Guirec on the Brittany coast to Vitre, 146 miles inland.