Luke Rowe leads Team Sky home in Tour of Britain opening stage through Norfolk and Suffolk after Mark Cavendish crash
Team Sky continued their tremendous season with the opening stage victory of this year's Tour of Britain at the Royal Norfolk Showground on Sunday – but the winner was not the man most of the bumper crowd was waiting on.
Welsh 22-year-old Luke Rowe, only officially added to Sky's six-man Tour squad a few days earlier, was the one who weaved his way through the tight lanes leading to and through the finish after a scorching 199.6km trek from Ipswich.
Scheduled to be Mark Cavendish's lead-out man, Rowe's stage win left him to mop up the podium – crossing the line to lead the points competition and a 10-second time bonus to claim the leaders' gold jersey.
'It was pretty incredible to win today,' said Rowe. 'It was quite unexpected but this is my biggest win to date so I am rather happy.
'I know I'm capable of producing a good lead out but the way it turned out just shows how unpredictable our sport is, and that's what makes it so special.'
Admittedly, Cavendish was the object of the huge crowd's affection – and the world road race champion and Tour de France sprint legend seemed destined to take all the headlines again once the stage's courageous breakaway quartet, alone on the road since the opening few miles, was finally swallowed up with 10km to go.
But once Jonny Clarke, Kristian House, Rony Martias and Niels Wytinck were collected the carnage began, as the peloton found the winding country lanes from Dereham to the Norfolk Showground final� too narrow to handle.
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The field had already ridden out one clash at the back before, with attention on the rapidly approaching finish now a little more than 1km, a second spill caught Cavendish in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Manxman slammed to the showground asphalt with a heavy impact to his hip. A clutch of riders in the tight group followed suit to tear another slice off the peloton.
Some of the crowd at the finish slammed the barriers in frustrated disbelief.
Coming inside the final 3km, the pile-up did not cost anyone any time – only Cavendish a glorious finish. The Manxman was already guaranteed most of the headlines, after news broke over the weekend of his hopes to leave Team Sky ahead of 2013 in an effort to preserve his efforts for future Tour de France stage victories – something seemingly compromised while at a team focused on overall classifications with the likes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome leading the way.
But rather than a broad smile, Cavendish wore blood and dirt as he cut a gloomy figure over the finish.
The opposite could be said of his lead-out man, who beamed at bringing home United Healthcare's Boy van Poppel and British sprinter Ross Downing of Endura, and then a strung-out field.
Rowe added: 'Coming towards the end of the race, we had Brad on the front and I was behind him, and Cav was sitting third because we were lining the stage up for him. But I looked round when he went down and shouted to Brad, 'It's for me', so we went full gas.
'For me whoever I'm leading out, whether it's Cav or whoever's on my wheel, I've just got to do the best job possible for them.'
After a late switch with Sky team-mate Tommy Lofkvist set up the one he wanted, Rowe is taking advantage of his first year as a professional.
'I got called up about two weeks ago, which was when I knew I was riding and Tommy was going to Canada – we swapped race programmes so I got called up pretty late really,' said Rowe.
'This was a race at the start of the year I had an eye on, and I said to the team I wanted to do it because stage six (Welshpool to Caerphilly) literally goes past my back garden. It was a race I always wanted to do, so to get called up and now to win a stage is pretty special.
'To be honest, the first couple of months I was quite shocked how fast the level of racing was and the extra step-up to pro tour is something else.
'But the past month I have started to find my feet and adapt to the level of racing, and I came into here with quite a lot of confidence. I went quite well in Denmark recently so I was quietly confident in my form and knew I was coming into the race in good shape.'
The flat route took 166 riders from Ipswich to Aldeburgh and along the east coast, before heading inland at Caister and arriving at Easton's showground via Hoveton, Reepham and Dereham.
House leads the fledgling King of the Mountains competition from Wytinck and Martias after gentle category three climbs at Snape, Westleton and Swanton Morley.
The first sprints of the tour at Melton, Great Yarmouth and Coltishall sent Martias ahead of House and Clarke before Rowe rode to the top of the standings at the finish, while Martias' Saur Sojasun lead the early team rankings.
AN Post Sean Kelly team's Wytnick was the final man of the breakaway to be caught – earning him the stage's combativity award.
After a lengthy overnight transfer, the tour resumes Monday morning in Nottingham for a 180.7km trip into the Peak District, finishing at Knowlsey Safari Park, with Rowe taking a three-second lead from Martias on to the road.