Evan, Wiggins and the Schleck brothers get a minute and a quarter's advantage over defending champion...

World number one Philippe Gilbert of Omega Pharma-Lotto is the first wearer of the yellow jersey in the 2011 Tour de France after a dramatic conclusion to today’s Stage 1 at Mont des Alouettes. Cadel Evans of BMC Racing finished second and already has more than a minute’s advantage over GC rivals including defending champion Alberto Contador after a crash split the peloton in the closing kilometres. Thor Hushovd was third, while Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas came sixth and will start tomorrow’s team time trial in the best young rider’s white jersey.

The 98th edition of cycling’s biggest race got under way this lunchtime on the Passage du Gois, the causeway linking the Ile de Noirmoutier to the French mainland that is only exposed at low tide. The last time the race passed this way, in 1999, a crash on that narrow strip of road had put paid to the overall hopes of Alex Zulle as he lost more than six minutes on eventual winner Lance Armstrong as the Texan began his seven-year domination of the race.

Today there seemed to be little prospect of such dramatic scenes being repeated, with the 191.5km stage still neutralised as it crossed the Passage du Gois, and with a three-man breakaway swept up with a little under 20km to go, the pleoton seemed set to hit the bottom of the final climb up to the finish together.

Suddenly, with just over 9km left to ride, an Astana rider hit a roadside spectator who was looking the wrong way, the narrowness of the road meaning that the 80 riders at the front of the race were able to had off up the road while those unfortunate enough to be riding behind the point where the crash took place were held up.

Europcar, based in the Vendée region which hosts this year’s Grand Départ and Gilbert’s Omega Pharma-Lotto team both seized the chance to force the pace in the front group as they looked to set up Thomas Voeckler and Gilbert respectively for the stage win.

BMC joined them in keeping the tempo high, sensing an opportunity to gain Evans some valuable time over potential rivals for the overall title, although they can scarcely have expected the Australian to have gained 1 minute 17 seconds over Contador by the time the Spaniard crossed the line.

The Spaniard's mood won't have been helped by the fact that as he chased hard for to make up time, a second crash in the front group resulted in a further obstacle to be negotiated, costing more time - and while those riders caught up in that crash were given the same time as the group they had been in because the crash happened in the last 3 kilometres, Contador and others from the second group got no such benefit.

Among the GC contenders safely home in the front group were Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, both Schleck brothers, Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink. Those finishing in the second group, losing 1 minute 14 on their rivals and a further 3 seconds on Evans, included not just Contador but also his compatriots Samuel Sanchez and Luis-Leon Sanchez.

While the Spanish trio were desperately trying to limit their losses on the riders ahead of them, in the front group Katusha’s Denis Galimzyanov was the first to go on the attack in earnest in a tough closing 2 kilometres as the road rose up to the finish line. Alexander Vinokourov of Astana, riding his final Tour de France, followed, but it was Fabian Cancellara who made the move that spurred Gilbert into action.

The Leopard Trek rider is no stranger to grabbing the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France each year, but with this year’s race dispensing with a Prologue, as also happened in 2009, it was always going to be difficult for him to prevail on this type of finish and so it proved as first Gilbert than Evans went past.

Gilbert’s win caps a fantastic week for the Belgian, who won his national championship for the first time last Sunday, and today happens to be his wife’s birthday. Besides being favourite for the win today, he’s also tipped to get the victory on Tuesday’s Stage 4 on Mur de Bretagne, his own birthday. Few would bet against him on today’s showing.

Today, his Omega Pharma-Lotto team had worked hard at the front of the peloton to keep an early three-man breakaway in check, although there was an inauspicious start to André Greipel’s first Tour de France.

The latter has been itching to have a crack at the Tour – last year, he had a very public falling out with former team mate Mark Cavendish, Greipel insisting that he was riding stronger and should be selected – but the German’s debut was marked by him hitting the tarmac even before the flag had dropped for the 98th Tour to officially start.

A grazed elbow apart, the fall probably hurt Greipel’s pride more than anything else, but he was prominent in the finale in helping get Gilbert into the right place at the right time and on balance can look back on a successful afternoon’s work.

The three escapees had got off the front of the peloton shortly after racing had begun in earnest following the crossing of the Passage du Gois, where huge crowds greeted the riders as they crossed the causeway.

Unsurprisingly, one of the riders who got into that first attack of the 2011 Tour was from local outfit Europcar, the Breton rider Perrig Quemeneur, who was joined by FDJ’s Jérémy Roy and the Dutch rider Lieuwe Westra of Vacansoleil.

Those three took the top three positions at the day’s solitary intermediate sprint, the subject of particular interest  as a result of changes made to the points system, and among those who are likely to contest the green jersey over the next three weeks it was Garmin-Cervélo’s Tyler Farrar who drew first blood by winning the sprint for fourth.

Given their lack of time trial specialists plus the likely toll that today’s efforts will have exacted from them, Omega Pharma-Lotto are unlikely to be able to help Gilbert defend the yellow jersey in tomorrow’s 23km team time trial at Les Essarts, where Team Sky, Leopard Trek, Garmin Cervelo and Rabobank will be among those looking to target the overall lead.

Tour de France Stage 1 Result 
1  GILBERT Philippe       OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO   4h 41' 31"
2  EVANS Cadel            BMC RACING              + 00' 03"
3  HUSHOVD Thor           GARMIN - CERVELO        + 00' 06"
4  ROJAS Jose Joaquin     MOVISTAR             all at same time
6  THOMAS Geraint         SKY PROCYCLING
7  KLÖDEN Andréas         RADIOSHACK
8  TAARAMAE Rein          COFIDIS
9  HORNER Christopher     RADIOSHACK
10 MARTIN Tony            HTC - HIGHROAD
12 SCHLECK Frank          LEOPARD-TREK
13 VELITS Peter           HTC - HIGHROAD
14 VOECKLER Thomas        EUROPCAR
15 CUNEGO Damiano         LAMPRE - ISD
16 MILLAR David           GARMIN - CERVELO
19 ROCHE Nicolas          AG2R LA MONDIALE
20 BOLE Grega             LAMPRE - ISD

Tour de France Overall Standings after Stage 1 
1  GILBERT Philippe	  OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO	4h 41' 31"
2  EVANS Cadel	          BMC RACING 	         + 00' 03"
3  HUSHOVD Thor	          GARMIN - CERVELO       + 00' 06"
4  ROJAS Jose Joaquin	  MOVISTAR            all at same time
9  HORNER Christopher	  RADIOSHACK
10 MARTIN Tony	          HTC - HIGHROAD	

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.