Greg Van Avermaet triumphs in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

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BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet picked right up where he last left off, opening the Belgian racing year with a second consecutive dash to victory over world champion Peter Sagan in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and setting Belgian hearts aflutter as the Cobbled Classics season got underway for 2017.

Van Avermaet showed the same finishing speed and tactical nous that won him Olympic and Classics glory last year, coming patiently past Cannondale-Drapac’s Sep Vanmarcke and opening up enough of a gap on Sagan to seal the win over the Slovakian, with Vanmarcke a solid but clear third on the day.

The elite trio showed the stars of the Classics how to make your own luck by riding ahead of the chaos of the cobbles and forcing home the advantage through pure strength to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Crashes split the field as it approached the decisive final 60km and the podium finishers took gradual control of the race through sustained pressure, systematically shedding a dozen hopefuls and holding the rest at bay through the final hills and cobbled stretches of the Flemish Ardennes, until only flat roads remained and a sprint to the line to sort out the podium steps.

In the sprint Sagan got stuck on the front of the trio for too long coming into the line, but it was Vanmarcke in the catbird seat, third, who left himself a chance. Inside 150 meters he swung left around a curve in the road, but Sagan had pushed him a bit wide, making it hard for Vanmarcke to get clear. When he hit the front, he had Van Avermaet still marking him and ready to cap things off. Sagan latched on to Van Avermaet’s trail as Vanmarcke faded, but could only hold that position as the Olympic champion showed once more that he is incredibly hard to beat in the classics, particularly this classic.

In the women’s race, Sunweb’s Lucinda Brand ditched the lead group to solo home for a 15 second victory in the final 10km, ahead of a foursome of Chantal Blaak, Annemiek van Vleuten, Ellen van Dijk and Elisa Longo Borghini.

The big shakeup of the race happened courtesy of a large crash shortly before the Taaienberg which smashed the field into pieces, and cost several top riders their chance at glory, as Tom Boonen, Lars Boom, Alexander Kristoff and Tiesj Benoot were among the favorites left too far behind.

Once things shook out Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke and two Trek riders Jasper Stuyven and Edward Theuns surged ahead of the chaos, soon joined by the world champion, along with another half dozen riders coming and going. Before long the Trek boys were left behind and Sagan was up front powering Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet, Alexis Gougeard of AG2R, Thomas Boudat of Direct Energie and Andrij Grivko of Astana. The latter two were dropped on the Haaghoek, just as the four Bigs closed in on the day’s early breakaway, including Justin Jules, Mike Teunissen, and briefly Preben Van Hecke and Gediminias Bagdonas. Behind them, a peloton re-formed after a while, with hopeful power teams Sky and Quick Step having the most work to do.

With the peloton struggling to get closer than 40 seconds, Sagan and Vanmarcke began to take control, shedding Gougeard, Boudat, Van Hecke and Bagdonas on the Molenberg while Zdenek Stybar (now the Quick Step captain with Boonen retiring for the day) tried to push on from the chasing peloton. On the Paddestraat it was five leaders with 27 seconds over Stybar, Petit, Luke Rowe and Matteo Trentin, ahead of the peloton. Jules fell back from the leaders, while Teunissen veered briefly into the muddy shoulder and got gapped, leaving the three stars alone in front with 28km remaining.

By the start of the Lange Munte, the final stretch of cobbles, a dozen chasers led by Stybar and the Treks were 26 seconds back but still struggling to make up any more ground. AG2R’s Oliver Naessen, Lotto-Soudal’s Jurgen Roelands, Fabio Felline (another Trek), Oscar Gatto of Astana and Quick Step’s Philippe Gilbert (former two-time Omloop winner) joined Rowe in taking turns but to little effect. Strong winds made it hard for a chase group to gain any real efficiency advantage, and by the 10km mark the gap was still 34 seconds and going backwards quickly.