Belfast (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Canadian Svein Tuft, riding for Australian team Orica-GreenEdge, enjoyed a birthday to remember as the Giro d'Italia got underway in Belfast on Friday.
Tuft celebrated his 37th birthday by leading Orica-GreenEdge over the line at the end of the first stage of the prestigious event.
And since the Australian squad was the fastest of the twenty-two teams, completing the 21.7km course in 24 minutes 42 seconds, it was Tuft who became the first wearer of the race leader's pink jersey.
"It's an amazing day that starts with a lot of stress and ends with this," said Tuft.
"It's a crazy way to spend your birthday, but what a treat. I can't thank my team enough for giving me this opportunity."
Tuft admitted that his team planned for him to cross the line first, so that he would wear the 'Maglia Rosa' should they win.
"They gave me the gift," he said. "It was really a birthday present. This team is selfless that way, but I feel very fortunate to be given this gift on my birthday."
He added that it wasn't just in recognition of his birthday but also "for the last few years' real dedication to this event."
Tuft, a time trial specialist, was a member of the Orica team that won the team time trial in last year's Tour de France, a race he eventually finished as 'lanterne rouge,' last man.
While Tuft was on a high, there was a disaster for home favourite Dan Martin.
The Irishman, a stage winner in last year's Tour de France, crashed heavily when his wheel appeared to slide on a wet manhole cover, bringing down four of his Garmin-Sharp team-mates.
It was Martin's second cruel disappointment in a month, after a crash on the final corner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege in late April ended his chances of defending the title.
His fall in Belfast saw him taken to hospital with a suspected broken collar-bone, ending his Giro just fifteen minutes after it started.
Orica's win continued their good record in this discipline after their close victory in the team time trial at last year's Tour de France.
Their win in Belfast was a lot more comfortable and convincing. But the Australian squad was blessed with some good fortune.
They were the second team to start from the Belfast Waterfront as a strong wind swirled and dark clouds threatened rain.
The rain began to fall halfway through their ride and became heavier as the 20 remaining teams headed out on a course that looped out of the city to Stormont Castle before returning to the waterfront.
The poor weather, which didn't deter crowds described by Tuft as "truly impressive, the entire course was lined four or five deep," meant that some of the favourites' teams were cautious and lost time, including those of two of the pre-race favourites, Nairo Quintana of Colombia and Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain, whose Movistar and Katusha teams lost 55 seconds and one minute 33 seconds respectively.
Tuft acknowledged the difficult conditions: "The wind was never coming from one area, it was always blustery so it made for quite a difficult time as a nine-man group on narrow corners.
"It makes for quite a dangerous course. You can never overlap wheels. As we saw with Garmin, you have one mistake and you really pay."
The rain eased for the final few teams, including BMC, with Australia's 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans.
They rode strongly to finish third just seven seconds slower than Orica.
Belgium's Omega Pharma-QuickStep team was second, five seconds down, and there was better news for the other great Irish hope, Nicolas Roche, whose Tinkoff-Saxo team was fourth, 23 seconds behind the winners.