A blistering team time trial ride yesterday by David Millar's Garmin-Cervélo squad propelled reigning world champion Thor Hushovd to yellow and Millar to second overall, whilst Sky's agonisingly close third place saw Welshman Geraint Thomas narrowly missing out on the overall lead.
On a flat and largely straightforward course of just 23 kilometres, not even strongly gusting winds could widen the minimal margins between the top five team finishers, with Garmin-Cervélo's advantage over a trio of chasing squads – Americans BMC, Sky and Leopard – just four seconds.
That said, Garmin-Cervélo had pulled out every stop available to ensure they could take the team's first ever Tour de France stage, travelling to the Vendée's patchwork countryside of hayfields and meadowlands two days earlier than other squads last week specifically to check out the time trial route.
Despite losing their stocky Kiwi sprinter Julian Dean early on and American fastman Tyler Farrar a little later, Garmin-Cervélo kept a perfectly controlled single line formation as they blasted along the straight, tree-lined country lanes west of Les Essarts.
Whilst Millar's time-trial skills meant he was one of the riders taking the biggest turns at the front, Hushovd's burly figure was the first to power across the line and – after a prolonged and increasingly tense wait as 13 more teams completed the course – earned the Norwegian the right to his first yellow jersey since he won the opening prologue of the 2006 Tour.
Ironically enough, Hushovd's strong performance was what kept Millar out of the yellow himself, given the Scot said afterwards that, had the reigning world road-race champion been dropped, "the team would have continued without him."
"The big goal for us was the stage win. The yellow jersey is the icing on the cake," Millar pointed out. "Everybody suffered massively, going way over the limit, because this is the hardest team time trial to win of them all.
"But experience makes a big difference in team time trials and there were a core of four or five of us who have done team time trials together many times, and we were able to make the most of that."
If Hushovd and Garmin-Cervélo team manager Jonathan Vaughters turned a shade nostalgic on the podium, that was understandable, given they had been team-mates when their GAN squad had won the Tour's team time trial back in 2001.
"Obviously I didn't do anything on the bike today, but this race was going to be tight and to put together a group of riders that could win is a very special feeling," Vaughters said. "I know what they had to do and to be able to support that makes me very proud."
Millar himself was content to savour the flavour of his first Tour stage win since 2003, rather than focus on the remote possibility of taking the lead himself in the coming week, saying simply "I'm taking it on the day by day."
Fourth overall, Thomas was philosophical in coming so close at exchanging his white jersey as leader of the Best Young Rider's competition to yellow of overall lead.
The Welshman had been instrumental in Sky's top-level performance, taking a big turn as soon as the nine riders shot out of the starting lanes, then shouldering more than his proportional share of the work at the head of the Sky string as they sped over the pancake flat course.
After marking the best time at the first intermediate split, Sky seemed more than in line for victory.
However, after losing two riders, Xavier Zandio and German powerhouse Christian Knees, simultaneously midway though the course, Sky faltered slightly and, as Vaughters pointed out when discussing another team, "this course was so close you couldn't afford to make a single error."
"It was full gas and Brad was going fast, I suffered then," Thomas said later. "But everybody did their bit – they didn't slow it down, which is the main thing. I don't think we could have done it differently – it was pretty tough and we did quite well. When there's nine guys flat out in the wind like that, it can be tricky."
Wiggins himself was "slightly disappointed" that Thomas did not make it into yellow, but overall the British contender had a very satisfying day.
After Saturday's crash-ridden finale earned Wiggins 75 seconds on the favourite Alberto Contador, Sky's top-three finish yesterday gained the Londoner another 24 seconds on the Spaniard, whose Saxo Bank team took a low-key eighth.
"Team time trials are Garmin's speciality. We gave it 100 per cent and we ran them very close,"Wiggins said afterwards. "Overall, though, it's been a fantastic start to the Tour de France, and a complete contrast to how things went last year."
Rounding out a strong British performance all round, Mark Cavendish's HTC-Highroad squad ran fifth but were left cursing their bad luck after losing key team player Bernie Eisel, who crashed after a corner, almost as soon as the race began. The Manxman may well plan to put the record straight on today's first mass bunch sprint stage of the race.
Saturday: Stage 1 (Passage du Gois La Barre-de-Monts - Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers, 191km):
1 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 4hrs 41mins 31secs
2 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team + 3secs
3 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo + 6secs
4 J J R Gil (Sp) Movistar Team
5 J Van Den Broeck (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
6 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling
7 A Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack
8 R Taaramae (Est) Cofidis; Le Credit En Ligne
9 C Horner (US) Team RadioShack
10 T Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad
11 L Gerdemann (Ger) Leopard Trek; 12 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek; 13 P Velits (Slovak) HTC-Highroad; 14 T Voeckler (Fr) Team Europcar; 15 D Cunego (It) Lampre-ISD; 16 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo; 17 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Pro Team Astana; 18 F Cancellara (Swit) Leopard Trek; 19 N Roche (Rep Ire) AG2R La Mondiale; 20 G Bole (Sloven) Lampre-ISD all at same time.
Selected Others: 63 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling + 6secs; 153 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at same time; 154 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at same time.
Stage 2 Team time-trial (Les Essarts-Les Essarts, 23km): 1 Team Garmin-Cervelo 24mins 48secs; 2 BMC Racing Team +4secs; 3 Sky Procycling at same time; 4 Team Leopard-Trek at same time; 5 HTC-Highroad +5secs; 6 Team Radioshack +10secs; 7 Rabobank Cycling Team +12secs; 8 Saxo Bank Sungard +28secs; 9 Pro Team Astana +32secs; 10 Omega Pharma-Lotto +39secs; 11 FDJ +46secs; 12 Team Europcar +50secs; 13 AG2R La Mondiale +53secs; 14 Quick Step Cycling Team +56secs; 15 Liquigas-Cannondale +57secs; 16 Saur-Sojasun +1min 2secs; 17 Lampre-Isd +1min 4secs; 18 Katusha Team at same time; 19 Movistar Team +1min 09secs; 20 Vacansoleil-Dcm +1min 15secs; 21 Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne +1min 20secs; 22 Euskaltel-Euskadi at same time
General classification after Stage 2: 1 T Hushovd (Nor) Team Garmin-Cervelo 5hrs 06mins 25secs; 2 D Millar (GB) Team Garmin-Cervelo at same time; 3 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 1secs; 4 G Thomas (GB) Sky Procycling at 4secs; 5 L Gerdemann (Ger) Leopard Trek at same time; 6 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at same time; 7 F Cancellara (Swit) Leopard Trek at same time; 8 E B Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling at same time; 9 M Quinziato (It) BMC Racing Team at same time; 10 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at same time; 11 J Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek at same time; 12 B Wiggins (GB) Sky Procycling at same time; 13 G Hincapie (US) BMC Racing Team at same time; 14 T Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad at 5secs; 15 P Velits (Slovak) HTC-Highroad at same time; 16 T Van Garderen (US) HTC-Highroad at same time; 17 L Ytting Bak (Den) HTC-Highroad at same time; 18 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at same time; 19 M H Goss (Aus) HTC-Highroad at same time; 20 A Kloden (Ger) Team RadioShack at 10secs. Selected other: 24 B Swift at 11secs.Reuse content