Tom Boonen outsprinted Thor Hushovd and Robbie McEwen to win the first full stage of the Tour de France.
The Belgian Quickstep rider timed his effort perfectly after Australian McEwen had led out the 189-man field.
But the sprinters only took control of stage two - which followed Saturday's 19km time trial - when they caught four breakaway riders with just 8km left.
Lance Armstrong and yellow jersey wearer David Zabriskie finished safely in the peloton in Les Essarts.
That meant that Zabriskie retained the overall lead of the race, although for much of the day Laszlo Bodrogi was the leader on the road.
Starting 59 seconds off Zabriskie's pace, Bodrogi was one of 14 men who surged from the main pack early on.
Most of those riders were soon caught.
But a breakaway four - comprising Bodrogi, David Canada, Sylvain Calzati and local hero Thomas Voeckler - built up a four-minute margin and stayed in front until the closing stages of the 181.5km from Challans.
Voeckler, who was a shock leader in the 2004 race, delighted the French crowds by darting up the final small climb of the day to pick up the points that mean he will be the King of the Mountains leader on Monday.
That affords him the luxury of the polka dot jersey and some extra attention.
But the spotlight will remain on American Zabriskie and, more particularly, on his compatriot Armstrong, who is bidding for an unmatched seventh-straight Tour win.
Armstrong gained no time on any of his main rivals on Sunday, but remains more than a minute clear of Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso after Saturday's time trial.
The Texan was quick to defend Ullrich, who performed below par after suffering a nasty crash on Friday.
"I talked to him today," said Armstrong.
"If you go into the back of the car and shatter the window with no helmet on, that's got to affect you.
"So you can't take anything away from him after the way he rode. He'll be better in a few days time."
Boonen said that the early stages would be key for the sprinters.
"For me, the Tour started today and I really wanted to win a stage because, after next Sunday, there will not be that many chances for sprinters," he said.
"The man in the green jersey then might take it to Paris."
Leading stage two finishers:
1. Tom Boonen (Bel/Quick-Step) 3:51:31"
2. Thor Hushovd (Nor/Credit Agricole) at same time
3. Robbie McEwen (Aus/Lotto)
4. Stuart O'Grady (Aus/Cofidis)
5. Luciano Pagliarini (Bra/Liquigas)
6. Juan Antonio Flecha (Spa/Fassa Bortolo)
7. Peter Wrolich (Aut/Gerolsteiner)
8. Jerome Pineau (Fra/Bouygues Telecom)
9. Baden Cooke (Aus/Francaise des Jeux)
10. Allan Davis (Aus/Liberty Seguros)
1. David Zabriskie (US/CSC) 4hrs 12mins 27secs
2. Lance Armstrong (US/Discovery) at 0:02
3. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun/Credit Agricole) at 0:47
4. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz/T-Mobile) at 0:53
5. George Hincapie (US/Discovery) at 0:57
6. Floyd Landis (US/Phonak) at 1:02
7. Fabian Cancellara (Swi/Fassa Bortolo) same time
8. Jan Ullrich (Ger/T-Mobile) at 1:03
9. Jens Voigt (Ger/CSC) at 1:04
10. Vladimir Karpets (Rus/Illes Balears) at 1:05