NAPLES, Italy -- British standout Mark Cavendish won the opening stage of the Giro d'Italia that was marred by a crash shortly before the finish.
The main pack was split into two groups Saturday when riders went down with just more than a mile to go in the 81-mile leg and less than a dozen riders left in front to contest the sprint.
Cavendish, who rides for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, finished in 2 hours, 58 minutes, 38 seconds on the circuit in downtown Naples, which featured a long, flat finishing straightaway. He has won a combined 37 stages at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta -- cycling's three Grand Tours.
Elia Viviani, an Italian with Cannondale, was second and Nacer Bouhanni, a Frenchman with FDJ, was third.
Overall favorites Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali, along with defending champion Ryder Hesjedal, finished safely in the main pack. All the riders who finished in the main pack were given the same time as the winner courtesy of the neutralizing rule for crashes in the final miles.
It was the 11th Giro stage win of Cavendish's career and his 98th victory overall. He'll wear the overall leader's pink jersey in Sunday's second stage, a team time trial on the nearby island of Ischia.
With time bonuses to the top three finishers, Cavendish took an eight-second lead on Viviani in the overall standings.
It will mark the fourth time Cavendish wears the pink jersey. He wore it for two days in 2009 when his former team Columbia won the opening team time trial and for one day in 2011 after a stage win.
"I've worn it before at the start but that was thanks to my team," Cavendish said. "I really wanted to win this here in Napoli. ... Now I want to go for a pizza."
Cavendish didn't have teammates helping him in the finish, but he used the crosswind to good effect and burst in front just before the line.
"I'm lucky I have the speed to be able to come like that in the final," he said.
The course featured two mild climbs in the Posillipo neighborhood and several loops down the finishing straight alongside the bay.
On a warm spring day, fans came out en masse. Some brought dogs, and one slipped under a barrier lining the road, nearly tripping some riders on a sharp corner.
With the roads narrow in areas and stretches of cobblestones, there were several crashes. Among those who hit the asphalt early on were Laurent Pichon of France, Matteo Rabottini of Italy and Miguel Minguez Ayala of Spain.
Italians Mattia Gavazzi and Davide Apollonio, plus Belgian Klaas Lodewyck, were involved in the crash near the end that split the group, although they appeared to escape serious injury.
"Circuit races always have crashes but it's nice to have circuit races for the fans," Cavendish said. "This is probably the most chaotic city I've been to, so to clear the traffic from the city center I've really got to take my hat off to the organizers."
Sunday's team time trial from Ischia to Forio is 10.8 miles. While Omega is without time trial specialist Tony Martin, Cavendish is intent on keeping the pink jersey.
"We're going to do everything we can," he said.
The race ends May 26 in Brescia.