Team Sky's Bradley Wiggins underlined his Tour de France claims by taking second place behind Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) in the prologue in Liege.
Wiggins, winner of Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine in a hugely impressive build-up to cycling's biggest event, was the 11th last rider to head out on the 6.4 kilometres course.
His target time at that point was the seven minutes and 20 seconds set by Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) - but at the halfway stage he was six seconds adrift.
However, a superb second phase saw the Briton cross the line 0.42 seconds in front to lay down a benchmark to the final 10 starters, including reigning champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing).
But it was former world time trial champion Cancellara who maintained his outstanding record of having never been beaten in a Tour de France prologue.
The Swiss star, who was coming back after a bad fracture of his collarbone at the Tour of Flanders, set a new fastest time at the intermediate check and he kept up the momentum to cross the line in 7:13.46, fully seven seconds in front of Wiggins and the rest, to claim the first leader's yellow jersey of the race.
It was the fourth time Cancellara has won a Tour prologue, following successes in 2004, 2007 and 2010, plus his time-trial win in Monaco in 2009.
"Every victory is important but today was a special one," said Cancellara afterwards. "After a hard period in April and a hard comeback I have done what I had to do today. That's my job.
"I felt good and I was motivated. This is a victory that I will not forget for a long time. I am enjoying what I am doing and that is why I could really put everything on the road today."
Chavanel took third, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) was fourth and snared the young rider's jersey just ahead of Team Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen in fifth.
Chris Froome was 11th, meaning Team Sky top the first team classification by four seconds.
Evans lost 10 seconds to Wiggins as he came home in 13th place.
Hard luck story of the day was world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) who was just a second slower than Cancellera at halfway before he suffered a rear wheel puncture and finished in 45th.
The first road stage proper on Sunday takes the riders 198km from Liege to Seraing, a suburb of the Belgian city, and concludes on a category four climb.
"I'm really happy, the legs felt good and I stayed calm and relaxed," said Wiggins afterwards.
"It's a good start and the main thing was to stay upright, safe and trouble-free - it's nice to get this first day out of the way.
"Fair play to Fabian, he's the best in the world at what he does and I think he proved that again today."
Leading final positions after Prologue (Liege (ITT), 6.4km): 1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) RadioShack-Nissan 7mins 13secs, 2 Bradley Wiggins (Gbr) Sky Procycling at 7secs, 3 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at same time, 4 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team at 10, 5 Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky Procycling at 11, 6 Brett Lancaster (Aus) Orica GreenEdge Cycling Team at same time, 7 Patrick Gretsch (Ger) Argos - Shimano at 12, 8 Denis Menchov (Rus) Katusha Team at 13, 9 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) BMC Racing Team at same time, 10 Andriy Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team at 15, 11 Christopher Froome (Gbr) Sky Procycling at 16, 12 Peter Velits (Svk) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at 17, 13 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at same time, 14 Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 18, 15 Ryder Hesjedal (Can) Garmin - Sharp at same time, 16 David Millar (Gbr) Garmin - Sharp at same time, 17 Stephen Cummings (Gbr) BMC Racing Team at same time, 18 Jens Voigt (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan at 19, 19 Andreas Kloden (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan at same time, 20 Nick Nuyens (Bel) Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank at 20
Selected Other: 41 Mark Cavendish (Gbr) Sky Procycling at 23secs