Proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA, sliding clamp) is a toroidal-shaped protein that encircles DNA and plays a pivotal role in DNA replication, modification and repair. To perform its vital functions, the clamp has to be opened and resealed at primer-template junctions by a clamp loader molecular machine, replication factor C (RFC). The mechanism of this process constitutes a significant piece in the puzzle of processive DNA replication. We show that upon clamp opening the RFC/PCNA complex undergoes a large conformational rearrangement, leading to the formation of an extended interface between the clamp and RFC. Binding of ring-open PCNA to all five RFC subunits transforms the free-energy landscape underlying the closed- to open state transition, trapping PCNA in an open conformation. Careful comparison of free-energy profiles for clamp opening in the presence and absence of RFC allowed us to substantiate the role of RFC in the initial stage of the clamp-loading cycle. RFC does not appreciably destabilize the closed state of PCNA. Instead, the function of the clamp loader is dependent on the selective stabilization of the open conformation of the clamp.