SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Mark Cavendish surged ahead of John Degenkolb in a thrilling sprint to win the first stage of the Tour of California on Sunday in the closest finish in the event’s nine-year history.

Degenkolb pulled ahead of the most decorated stage winner in Tour de France ever in the final stretch before the British “Manx Missile” burnished his legacy again. The two raced shoulder-to-shoulder until Cavendish threw the rim of his bicycle’s tire just ahead as he crossed the line in a photo finish.

READ MORE: Kempe's Two Goals Help Put Kings Over Oilers, 5-1

Cavendish completed the 120-mile stage in 4 hours, 47 minutes, 17 seconds for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step Cycling Team. The Netherland’s Moreno Hofland of Belkin Pro Cycling was third.

Sprinter Peter Sagan, who has won an event-record 10 stages, got buried in the pack and finished fourth.

The longest stage of the eight-day, 720-mile journey through California’s eclectic climates came down to a drama-filled finishing stretch in steps away from the state Capitol — and even then it took a minute to know who actually won.

As the bell rang for one lap to go around the tree-lined downtown circuit, the two big teams of the two big sprinters pulled to the front. Cavendish appeared to wait too long to attack, finally getting free and churning his legs for one powerful closing burst.

Cavendish came up along the right of Degenkolb, the German riding for Team Giant-Shiman, and lowered his helmet to the line. Neither rider celebrated until learning of the final photo results, when Degenkolb congratulated Cavendish with a hug.

Carmen Small of the Specialized-lululemon team won the women’s circuit race. The event resumes with a time trial in Folsom on Monday.

READ MORE: Woman Found Shot To Death In South LA, Shooting Suspect Still At-Large

The race has evolved into North America’s most prestigious cycling event. This year’s field includes several world-class talents, including Cavendish and 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

Defending champion Tejay van Garderen is not competing this year, instead focusing on cycling’s marquee race in July. But his BMC Racing Team still has aspirations of challenging Wiggins, who will no doubt be the man to beat on the mountains.

The overall winner figures to be sorted out on those steep climbs, including the Stage 3 ascent up Mount Diablo on Tuesday — when a heat wave is expected to send temperatures into the upper 90s — and the Stage 6 ride up Mountain High on Friday. The race ends May 18 over the same circuit in Thousand Oaks that concluded the 2010 edition.

For the opening stage, a blue sky and undulating hills on the edge of California’s Central Valley provided a more serene backdrop. But the wind — which came from every direction on the circuitous route — added an unexpected twist.

The race started and finished steps away from the Capitol, hugging the Sacramento River as the peloton rode north out of Sacramento. After passing through Pleasant Grove, another sprint in Lincoln and a journey through Auburn, there was a fast decent to the American River and a tiring climb up Highway 49.

Six riders — Matt Cooke, Charles Planet, Thomas Leezer, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Isaac Bolivar Hernandez and Will Routley — were part of an early breakaway. They held a lead of five minutes before the peloton reeled them in with about 33 miles remaining.

A stiff crosswind on the way back split the pack into two pelotons. The two groups made for a taxing and tricky ride before coming together — except for Kiel Reijnen and Jacob Rathe on a breakaway — in downtown Sacramento, where a three-lap circuit around the Capitol made for a furious finish.

MORE NEWS: Man Found Dead In Dumpster In South Los Angeles

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)