Cavendish took the victory from a reduced peloton after a crash held up the majority of his Omega Pharma team-mates and several of his sprint rivals.
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Elia Viviani (Cannondale) placed second – a result he was evidently disappointed with, banging his handlebars with his fist as he crossed the line. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) came home in third.
Nervous start in Naples
Seven riders formed an early escape group – Guillaume Bonnafond (Ag2r), Brian Bulgac (Lotto-Belisol), Marco Canola (Bardiani Valvole), Martijn Keizer (Vacansoleil-DCM), Ricardo Mestre (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar) and Cameron Wurf (Cannondale) – and worked together to extend a lead of around two minutes over the peloton.
Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Argos-Shimano shared duties at the front of the bunch to mark the time gap, working for sprinters Cavendish and Degenkolb.
Australian Wurf struck out from the break with a solo move with around 90km to ride, a move with seemed to take the wind out of the sails of his six former escape companions as they were subsequently caught by the peloton.
With Wurf posing far less of a risk than a group of riders, the peloton were content to let him dangle out the front until it was time to wind up the pace, and his day was done in the final 20km.
Several teams took it in turns at the front of the peloton in the final 8km circuit around Naples. Cannondale took up the reins for Viviani in the final 3km after a crash took out several of Cavendish’s team-mates, leaving him with just Gert Steegmans for company – and then Steegmans faltered as his gears slipped.
As Cannondale accelerated on the left-hand side of the road, Cavendish came up on the right to out-pace all of his rivals and take the first Grand Tour stage of the 2013 season.
British BMC rider Adam Blythe finished a creditable seventh on the stage.
Overall hope Bradley Wiggins (Sky) finished safely in the main peloton.
Early race nerves and twisting, uneven roads contributed to several crashes in the race. Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack-Leopard), Pablo Urtasun (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Laurent Pichon (FDJ) all came away with an early dose of Grand Tour road rash during the day. Brit Alex Dowsett (Movistar) also got tangled in a crash, but quickly remounted after a bike change unharmed.
The overall classification will receive a big shake-up tomorrow (Sunday), as the riders take on a short 17.4km team time trial from Ischia to Forio. Stage two preview, map and profile>>
Giro d’Italia 2013, stage one: Naples to Naples, 130km
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep in 2-58-38
2. Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale
3. Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ
4. Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) RadioShack-Leopard
5. Matthew Goss (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
6. Francisco Ventoso (Spa) Movistar
7. Adam Blythe (GBr) BMC Racing
8. Leigh Howard (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
9. Danilo Hondo (Ger) RadioShack-Leopard
10. Brett Lancaster (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge all same time
58. Alex Dowsett (GBr) Movistar at st
64. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky at st
176. Steve Cummings (GBr) BMC Racing at st
204. David Millar (GBr) Garmin-Sharp at st
Overall classification after stage one
1. Mark Cavendish (GBr) Omega Pharma-QuickStep in 2-58-18
2. Elia Viviani (Ita) Cannondale at 8 secs
3. Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) FDJ at 12 secs
4. Danilo Hondo (Ger) RadioShack-Leopard at 16 secs
5. Marco Marcato (Ita) Vacansoleil-DCM at 18 secs
6. Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) RadioShack-Leopard at 20 secs
7. Matthew Goss (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge at 20 secs
8. Francisco Ventoso (Spa) Movistar at 20 secs
9. Adam Blythe (GBr) BMC Racing at 20 secs
10. Leigh Howard (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge at 20 secs
64. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Sky at 20 secs
Mark Cavendish put in a huge effort to win the opening stage of the 2013 Giro