Moreno Hofland (Belkin) took third spot ahead of Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in fourth. Cavendish takes the early race lead.
Nineteen-year-old British rider Tao Geoghegan Hart (Bissell) – the youngest rider in the race – was one of six riders in the day’s early escape group, swiftly building up a lead of around five minutes over the peloton.
Geoghegan Hart, Thomas Leezer (Belkin), Isaac Bolivar (UnitedHealthcare), Martijn Verschoor (Novo Nordisk), Charles Planet (Novo Nordisk) and Will Routley (Optum) worked well together, but were caught with around 55km to go.
Almost immediately the fierce crosswinds caused a split in the peloton, with Sky, Omega Pharma, BMC and Trek leading the pace-setting.
Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Taylor Phinney (BMC) and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) were all present, but Sagan had missed the split. With a tailwind helping them nudge over 40mph, the 15-rider lead group built up a gap of 50 seconds at one point.
After initial disarray, a more organised chase behind saw the gap close, and with 20km to go the junction was made between the two groups.
Riders continued to attack off the front of the peloton on the run-in to Sacramento, but only Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) gave the sprinters a cause to worry with a long solo move that lasted until the final 4km.
First Cannondale and then Omega Pharma-QuickStep took control at the head of the bunch. As the race hit the finishing straight, Degenkolb moved up to the front and looked to have the edge over Cavendish until the Manxman lunged his bike forward across the line, taking the victory by a tyre’s width.
Monday sees the first key stage for the overall contenders – a 20 kilometre individual time trial in Folsom, where Wiggins will be looking to gain time on his rivals.
Amgen Tour of California 2014, stage one: Sacramento to Sacramento, 198km/123 miles
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep in 4-44-17
2. John Degenkolb (Ger) Giant-Shimano
3. Moreno Hofland (Ned) Belkin
4. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale
5. Danny Van Poppel (Ned) Trek Factory Racing
6. Guillaume Boivin (Can) Cannondale
7. Eric Young (USA) Optum
8. Matthew Goss (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
9. Taylor Phinney (USA) BMC Racing
10. John Murphy (USA) UnitedHealthcare at same time
Overall classification after stage one
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
Bradley Wiggins recounts the last time that he took part in the Tour of California, in 2008