He capitalised on a lead-out provided by his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates, which included Julian Alaphilippe, despite the world champion animating the day with a long-range attack.
Making his first competitive outing of the year, Alaphilippe forged clear on the early slopes of Montee du Brulat and together with Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Gianni Moscon (Ineos) carved out a 1:20 gap with 40km to go.
The rugged terrain and the tailwind played into their favour until 10km remaining, when the exposed coastal roads saw their advantage trimmed to a handful of seconds.
Once the catch was made, the 28-year-old Frenchman remained at the front and put in a huge shift as part of the Deceuninck-Quick-Step lead-out.
“We had a plan, and that was to try something after the first 100km of the stage, so I went with around 70km to go and got to spend a beautiful day at the front.
“The legs were good and together with the other two riders I shared the workload at the front.
“When the gap went over one minute, I still knew it was going to be difficult, but I still gave my best.
“At the end of the day, I am satisfied with my condition and the way it panned out for us”, explained Alaphilippe after the stage.
First to kick out on the finishing straight was Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ), who opened a significant gap on the others.
With the wind blowing from the right-hand side in Six-Fours-les-Plages, Ballerini timed it perfectly and surged down the barriers some 150 metres from the line, shooting past the Frenchman and got his 2021 season off to a winning start.
“I had good legs coming into the race after the training camp, but I didn’t expect anything like this.
“We have a very strong team for this race and are all extremely motivated, so to get the win on the first day is just great.
“A big thank you goes to all the guys, because they put in an incredible effort and were pretty special the entire day.
“The final wasn’t easy. Demare took six metres, but I found the space to come back, as well as the speed I needed to pass him.
“To win so early, and in front of one of last year’s best sprinters, is good for the confidence and brings me a lot of joy,” added Ballerini, who on Friday will sport the race’s Mondrian-style leader’s jersey.
Friday’s second stage will cover 176km between Cassis and Manosque.
— In the Bunch (@In_the_Bunch) February 11, 2021