Grand Tour debutant Lukas Pöstlberger of Bora-hansgrohe broke away from a splintered main field to snatch a surprise Giro d’Italia Stage 1 victory in Olbia.
A crash on a sharp right-hand bend inside the final 5km caused chaos, and the sprinters’ teams consequently failed to organise properly for the final lead-out.
Pöstlberger, who had intended to be the penultimate lead-out man for Bora-hansgrohe’s sprinter Sam Bennett, soloed powerfully away from the leading group with 2km to race.
Although Caleb Ewan of ORICA-SCOTT nearly caught him on the finish line, the 25-year-old Austrian had already slowed to a near standstill to celebrate his shock victory. A visibly frustrated Ewan was second with André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) third.
The day began in Alghero with a minute’s silence remembering Michele Scarponi - Astana Pro Team's 2011 Giro champion who was killed while training nearly two weeks ago.
The peloton soon rolled out for the start and it was down to business as a frantic early pace saw several attempts to break away from the main bunch.
The first breakaway of the 100th Giro duly escaped in the first 10km of the 206km stage, and was made up of six men: Mirco Maestri (Bardiani-CSF), Cesare Benedetti (Bora-hansgrohe), Marcin Bialoblocki (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Pavel Brutt (Gazprom-Rusvelo), Daniel Teklehaimanot (Team Dimension Data) and Eugert Zhupa (Wilier Selle Italia).
After 50km, the break’s advantage stood at 5’43”, having shot up to 7’20” at one point. But there was no chance of the sprinters’ teams allowing the break to control matters, with a formidable line-up of fast men desperate to take the prestigious pink jersey.
Along with Greipel and Ewan, Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors Pro Cycling) and Sacha Modolo (UAE Team Emirates) were among the favourites for the expected bunch gallop.
Maestri of Bardiani-CSF was the first rider to drop out of the breakaway, and the five escapees ploughed on towards the finish in Olbia, with the stunning backdrop of the Sardinian coastline for company on what became a relatively slow-paced stage.
Benedetti ensured he would wear the blue climber’s jersey on Friday night by taking maximum points on the first two categorised climbs, at Multeddu and Trinità d’Agultu.
In the first intermediate sprint of this year's race at Santa Teresa di Gallura, Albanian champion Zhupa beat Eritrean Teklehaimanot into second place.
With 50km to go the gap was 2’25” - more than manageable for the chasing pack. Lotto Soudal, ORICA-SCOTT and Quick-Step Floors Pro Cycling controlled the gap and ensured it would be a day for the sprinters - or so it seemed.
Teklehaimanot won the final intermediate sprint, holding off Brutt and Zhupa, as the pace from the chasing bunch intensified, while Bialoblocki dropped out of the lead group.
The break hit the climb 1’14” ahead of the pack - Team Sky and Movistar Team led the way behind. Benedetti took a hat-trick of wins by beating Teklehaimanot on the final ascent, while the gap had shrunk to 46”.
The escapees flew down the descent to Olbia in a spirited attempt to stay away and with 7km to go they led by 20”. What had been a relatively serene start to the Giro predictably became more frantic as the finish line beckoned.
The peloton swallowed up the breakaway with 3.6km remaining - just before negotiating a sharp right-hand bend, which brought a big crash that held up a large group of riders.
Bennett, Greipel, Ewan, Modolo and Gaviria were all on the right side of the split caused by the crash, but there was an almost total lack of organisation from their teams - which allowed Pöstlberger to make his move with 2km left.
The Austrian rider, in his very first Grand Tour stage, realised along with his team that he may have built a decisive gap and he went for broke as the chasers closed in.
Pöstlberger benefited from Ewan's isolation and although the Australian sprinter desperately tried to reel him in - along with German national champion Greipel and the rest of a depleted bunch - it proved to be Bora-hansgrohe's day.
"I'm really happy, I'm really pleased to get this victory in the Giro and wear the Maglia Rosa," Pöstlberger said. "I have no words, I'm overwhelmed."