SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Mark Cavendish has more than 100 wins around the world, including 25 stages in the Tour de France, but he never had a victory like the one he had Sunday.
Cavendish surged ahead of John Degenkolb in a thrilling sprint to win the first stage of the Tour of California in the closest finish in the event’s nine-year history.
"It’s the first time in my career I really didn’t know the result until it was confirmed to me," he said.
Degenkolb broke away from the most decorated Tour de France sprinter ever in the final stretch before the British "Manx Missile" burnished his legacy again. The two raced shoulder-to-shoulder as Cavendish came up along the right side and threw the rim of his bicycle’s tire ahead at the line.
Neither rider celebrated until learning the results, which were confirmed by photos, though Degenkolb looked dejected waiting for the final word. After the results were announced, he congratulated Cavendish with a heartbreaking hug.
"I knew that I lost," Degenkolb said. "Sometimes it's really just 1 or 2 centimetres, but normally you feel it straight away."
Cavendish completed the 120-mile stage in 4 hours, 44 minutes, 7 seconds for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step Cycling Team. Moreno Hofland of the Netherlands and Belkin Pro Cycling was third. Slovak sprinter Peter Sagan, who has won an event-record 10 stages, got buried in the pack and finished fifth.
The longest stage of the eight-day, 720-mile journey through California's eclectic climates came down to a drama-filled finishing stretch just steps away from the state capitol -- and even then it took a minute to know who actually won.
As the bell rang for one lap to go around the tree-lined downtown circuit, the teams of the big sprinters pulled to the front. Cavendish appeared to wait too long to attack -- and had to work harder after teammate Mark Renshaw recovered from a punctured tire -- before finally getting free and churning his legs for a powerful closing burst.
He rode along the right of Degenkolb, the German riding for Team Giant-Shimano, and lowered his helmet to the line. Cavendish, who announced in April he would skip the Giro d'Italia -- where he won five stages last year -- for the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse after an illness, also won the Sacramento stage in 2010.
"This fits in perfectly for what I want to do this year," he said. "I should be fresh enough."
Carmen Small of the Specialized-lululemon team won the women's circuit race. The Tour of California resumes with a time trial in Folsom on Monday.
The race, which has evolved into North America's most prestigious cycling event, has lived up to the billing so far. This year's field includes several world-class talents, including Cavendish and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.
American Tejay van Garderen, the winner last year, is not competing, instead focusing on cycling's marquee race in July. But his BMC Racing Team still has aspirations of challenging Wiggins, who will no doubt be the man to beat on the mountains.
The overall winner figures to be sorted out on those steep climbs, including the Stage 3 ascent up Mount Diablo on Tuesday -- when a heat wave is expected to send temperatures into the upper 90s -- and the Stage 6 ride up Mountain High on Friday. The race ends May 18 over the same circuit in Thousand Oaks that concluded the 2010 edition.
For the opening stage, a blue sky and undulating hills on the edge of California's Central Valley provided a more serene backdrop. But the big breezes -- which came from every direction on the circuitous route -- added an unexpected twist.
"There was no shortage of wind," Whistler, B.C., rider Will Routley said.
He was one of six riders -- Matt Cooke, Charles Planet, Thomas Leezer, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Isaac Bolivar Hernandez -- who were part of an early breakaway. They held a lead of five minutes before the peloton reeled them in with about 33 miles remaining.
A stiff headwind on the way back split the pack into two. The two groups made for a taxing and tricky ride before coming together -- except for Kiel Reijnen and Jacob Rathe on a failed two-man breakaway -- in downtown Sacramento, where a three-lap circuit around the Capitol made for the furious photo finish.