Fernando Gaviria missed the spring classics after the Quick-Step Floors cyclist broke his hand in a crash at Tireno-Adriatico, interrupting what had already been a successful start to the season.
The Colombian sprinter showed Sunday that he hasn't lost his form.
Gaviria timed his final push perfectly on the flat run-in to the finish in Long Beach, winning the opening stage of the Tour of California and earning the time bonus to give him the overall lead.
Australian rival Caleb Ewan was second in a field packed with some of the world's top sprinters, while three-time and reigning world champion Peter Sagan rounded out the podium.
"The feeling during the race was really good. Really good legs," Gaviria said, "and a really good job from my team. We're happy to win the stage."
The opening stage along the picturesque waterfront covered 12 laps of a circuit just over seven miles in length, so it figured to favor the sprinters. And when American rider Tanner Putt and Andrei Krasilnikau of Belarus got away early, the rest of the field never gave them too much space.
They spent more than three hours at the front before getting caught in the final laps.
"Yeah, it was the first move of the day, and it was just me and a rider from Hincapie," said Putt, who rides for the strong UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling domestic team. "The plan was to get myself in the break, try to take some of the sprint points and give the guys a free ride today.
"It worked out," Putt said. "A long day."
By the end, Quick-Step Floors moved to the front to set up their 24-year-old speed star for the finish. Gaviria stormed to the front and had enough legs to hold off Ewan and Sagan, the record-holder for Tour of California stage wins, in what could be described as a minor upset.
Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff, powerful sprinters adept at flat finishes, were the prerace favorites. They rounded out the top five with Kiel Reijnen the top American finisher in seventh.
"Yeah, it was a pretty straightforward race today, just on circuits," Ewan said. "It was a pretty hectic finish because it's the first stage, so there's a lot up for grabs. I was really happy my team got me where I needed to be for the sprint. It was a good day."
It was a great day for Gaviria, who has spent most of the last couple months training at home in Colombia. He returned last month at the Tour of Romandie to get some miles in his legs.
"I don't know if I'm surprised," he said. "I've been training for the job and I think it's good to come back and win. I tried to come back really strong at Romandie."
Gaviria's time bonus at the finish gave him a four-second advantage of Ewan and Putt heading into the second stage Monday, which should reshape the overall classification considerably.