Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland retained the race leader’s yellow jersey after the crash-marred Tour de France first stage, which was won in spectacular fashion by Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre.
Italian sprinter Petacchi, making his first appearance at the race in more than five years, upset predictions when he finished a reduced bunch sprint ahead of Australian Mark Renshaw and Norwegian Thor Hushovd.
Numerous crashes occurred in the closing kilometres of the 223.5km ride from Rotterdam to Brussels, leaving some of the top favourites for stage victory out of the running.
Spanish fast man Oscar Freire, of Rabobank, was brought down along with Cervelo’s Jeremy Hunt when the Briton took a wrong turn on a tight bend with two kilometres to go.
Another massive crash with just a kilometre to go reduced the peloton further.
British sprint king Mark Cavendish, the winner of six stages last year, was among the big names also left out of contention, leaving his lead-out man Renshaw to go it alone.
After the carnage, Petacchi produced a thrill when he tried to shake his followers by pulling sharply to the left side of the road.
Seconds later he came over the finish line in victory, and later refused to accept it was devalued by the relative lack of quality in the final bunch.
“It wasn’t unexpected for me. I’m here to sprint and win stages, and to do my best and that’s what I did,” said the Italian, who last appeared at the race in 2004 when he pulled out before the sixth stage.
“Of course Cavendish and I are sure to sprint against each other, but even if he hadn’t been caught up in a crash who’s to say I wouldn’t have won. I think I did a great sprint.”
Cancellara took the yellow jersey on Saturday when he won the race’s opening prologue over 8.9km in Rotterdam.
But the Olympic time trial champion paid his own price for staying up at the front of a chaotic and “nervous” bunch in his bid to keep hold of the race lead for as long as possible.
The Saxo Bank man had to brake hard to avoid a fallen rider, but still hit the asphalt.
“At the end I couldn’t do anything. I had to brake hard, and ended up doing a bit of a somersault once I landed,” said Cancellara, who admitted he was slowly starting to feel the pain of his tumble.
“Now with the time passing I feel like my shoulder and my whole left side are hurting.”
Because the first half of the stage was held along the North Sea coast, some teams were expected to use the strong coastal winds to race hard in a bid to break up the peloton and put time into their rivals.
That failed to materialise, as a three-man break consisting of Dutchman Lars Boom, Belgian Maarten Wynants and Spaniard Alan Perez went on an early breakaway which came to an end in the final 25km.
In the end, the “millions” of people lining the roads from Rotterdam to Brussels seemed to play more of a factor than the wind.
Cancellara added: “The wind was never really that significant a factor. I think some teams were expecting that to play a big role, and that only served to make a lot of guys nervous.
“But the roads were just madness with the amount of people. It was like that from the start. With that, the wind, a lot of turns and quite a bit of nervousness in the peloton I think maybe some guys lost their concentration.”