(CNN) -- Belgium's Philippe Gilbert won a dramatic first stage of the Tour de France Saturday as defending champion Alberto Contador lost valuable time after being held up by a late mass crash.
It caps an incredible season for Omega Pharma's Gilbert, who won three of the spring classics in the Ardennes and once again showed his strength in the closing stages of the 191.5km run from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes.
A breakaway trio of Jeremy Roy, and Tour debutants Perrig Quemeneur and Lieuwe Westra were caught 20 kilometers from the finish as the pace in the peloton increased.
With nine kilometers to go, an errant spectator was clipped by an Astana rider, sparking a mass pile-up which held up Saxo Bank's Contador and a sizeable portion of the riders.
As Contador chased desperately to limit his losses, a second crash saw the lead body of riders further reduced, but as it happened inside the final three kilometers all those involved did not suffer major time losses.
With a steady uphill to the finish Gilbert waited as first Alexandre Vinkourov and then Fabian Cancellara made their bids for victory.
He caught Cancellara and pulled clear for a superb victory, with Australian Cadel Evans chasing in vain to come in three seconds down, with Norwegian Thor Hushovd leading the chasing peloton at six seconds.
It was a major bonus for Evans, who is among the favorites for the yellow jersey, as he gained one minute 17 seconds on Contador, who cut a disconsolate figure as he came across the line.
Of the other major contenders, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, second to Contador in last year's race, also benefited, likewise Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins and Levi Leipheimer of the United States.
All were in the group at six seconds behind the early leader Gilbert.
Sunday sees a 23km team time trial which expected to see a major shake up in the battle for the yellow jersey.