BMC rider Taylor Phinney of the U.S. celebrates as he wears the lead rider’s pink jersey on the podium after winning the opening time trial of the Giro d’Italia in Herning May 5, 2012. Phinney was quickest over the 8.7 km time trial through the streets of Herning in Denmark. The 95th Giro d’Italia starts in Herning, Denmark and finishes in Milan, northern Italy on May 27. (REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)

By Alasdair Fotheringham

HERNING, Denmark, May 5 (Reuters) – Former track great Taylor Phinney became the first American in four years to wear the Giro d’Italia pink jersey with a clear victory in the opening individual time trial on Saturday.

A former double individual pursuit world champion, Phinney finished nine seconds ahead of Britain’s 2008 Olympic gold team pursuit medallist Geraint Thomas on the 8.7 km course.

Another top track racer, local favourite Alex Rasmussen of Denmark, finished third.

“I’m not Italian but I live in Italy during a lot of the season and I know how special this jersey is, this win is a season-maker, a huge opportunity,” the 21-year-old Phinney told reporters.

“I didn’t want to start celebrating until it was all over and all the riders had finished, even though I knew I’d done a good time and everybody was already congratulating me.”

The former under-23 world time trial champion, whose only previous professional road victory was the prologue of the Eneco Tour in 2011, said: “I’ve been building up specifically towards this for the last couple of months but it has been a target since last year.”

Ramunas Navardauskas was a surprise leader on the flat, exposed city centre course for nearly two hours before being overtaken by Italian Manuele Boaro, who eventually came fourth and finished seven seconds faster than the Lithuanian.

Thomas took over as leader before Phinney, the only rider to average over 50 kmh, clocked the best time.

“I was in a deep pain zone in the last three kilometres, but it was a good kind of pain.” Phinney added.

“I’d made sure I had a little extra mojo for the last three kilometres which I knew would be the most difficult part.”

“And my mum is here, she was jumping around when I finished, and I could talk to my dad and sister on the phone too as (the final rider to start) Michele Scarponi was crossing the line. That was a pretty special moment.”

Italian favourite and double Giro winner Ivan Basso turned in the best time of the overall contenders, 39 seconds down on Phinney on a course he said did him no favours.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Basso told reporters, “It’s a long race, but it’s always good to get a good start.”

The Giro d’Italia continues with the second stage in Denmark on Sunday. It finishes on May 27 in Milan.