TOURNAI, Belgium (AP) -- Winning the opening stage in his very first Tour de France, like Peter Sagan did Sunday, is a rare feat that confirms the high hopes race watchers have put in the young Slovak.
Sagan, a 22-year-old rider for Italian squad Liquigas-Cannondale, is the most closely watched of the 33 rookies in this year's Tour after coming into the race with five stage wins in the Tour of California and four in the Tour of Switzerland.
This year's contingent of newcomers is relatively small. Last year, 49 riders rode their first Tour, while the 2010 edition had 61 racers making their debuts.
As Sagan showed with his win over four-time world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara in Seraing, inexperience in the world's greatest cycling race is not necessarily a handicap to success.
Sagan is the second-youngest of this year's crop of Tour first-timers, and sits highest among them in the general classification.
Thibaut Pinot of French team FDJ-Bigmat is the youngest of the 198 riders who took off in the 99th Tour on Saturday in Liege. Another young Tour newbie is Sagan teammate Dominik Nerz, a 22 year old German.
Age is no barrier to discovering the Tour for the first time, as US rider Tom Danielson showed last year, when he finished his first Tour in 8th place at age 33.
This year, New Zealand rider Greg Henderson is the oldest of the first-timers at 35.
Henderson rides in support of Lotto-Belisol's star sprinter Andre Greipel, a contender for the green sprinters jersey. Asked how it felt to be the oldest newcomer to the Tour this year, the New Zealander said he was aware of it but didn't let it bother him.
"It's just a number, isn't it?" Henderson said.
NO TRAIN NEEDED, BUT BRAIN
World champion Mark Cavendish proved Monday he can win a sprint even without the famous leadout train that has delivered him to the final few hundred feet in the past at the Tour de France.
Sprinting at upward of 45 miles an hour, with dozens of other riders violently maneuvering their bicycles mere inches away from him, Cavendish had to use his wits and reflexes to make it to the line first.
Listen to the expert's master class:
"I saw (Oscar) Freire and I knew Freire usually surges in the last kilometer so I jumped on Freire," Cavendish explained.
"I saw (Daryl) Impey go on the right to lead out (Matt) Goss, but Goss was a bit slow to react to jump on Impey so I took the opportunity to get between them and I jumped on Impey who went. He couldn't stop and Gossy was behind me so he had to go, which was going to be perfect to lead me out. If he would have pulled off I'd have been left on the front a bit too early.
"Then I saw Henderson go on the left with Greipel on his wheel and I just moved left because when Hendy surged it kind of caught (Peter) Sagan by surprise and I was able to get on the wheel and then Greipel went. I even left it a bit late, I jumped off Greipel with about 200 (meters) to go, I should have gone a bit earlier because as you can see it was very tight for the line," Cavendish explained. "But yeah, it was just like that."
Fast legs are obviously not enough to rule over sprints - you also need a quick brain.
DON'T CALL HIM SANTA CLAUS
Race leader Fabian Cancellara responded to the criticism of his tactics by praising the man who beat him at the finish of Sunday's first stage.
Some experts said Cancellara gifted the stage to Peter Sagan by letting him sit on his wheel in the final climb, leaving the young Slovak free to swing around at the last second and claim the win.
Cancellara was even nicknamed Santa Claus for his so-called generosity.
"I have better nicknames," said Cancellara, whose most famous moniker is Spartacus. "Next time for sure I'll do it differently, but when you see how many races Sagan won, you know it's not so easy to beat him."