Greg Van Avermaet and Luke Rowe lit up the first two cobbled races of the year, while Etixx-Quick Step disappointed when expectations were high

The monkey is finally off Greg Van Avermaet’s back

Greg Van Avermaet wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2016

It’s not a monument, but Greg Van Avermaet will be delighted to finally get a win at a one-day race, having come so close in recent years to breaking his duck.

For such an accomplished Classics rider, it’s amazing to think that the last one-day race he won was the 2011 Paris-Tours. In recent years he’s notched up podiums at the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Strade Bianche without actually standing on the top step.

Whether it’s an untimely crash, a puncture in the final kilometres or just bad luck, Van Avermaet has always been pipped to the post in the big races. But we’ve known that he can win races, with his stage win at the 2015 Tour de France giving him confidence in his ability to beat the best riders on the biggest stage.

Van Avermaet’s attack to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was well timed, and the Belgian is handy in a reduced sprint, meaning that he could be confident that he could open up the gas and take it all the way to the finish. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this has on the Belgian going into the rest of the cobbled races.

Etixx-Quick Step messed things up again

Tom Boonen in the 2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

Tom Boonen in the 2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

While in 2015, Etixx-Quick Step outnumbered Ian Stannard three to one and still lost, this year they were noticeable in their absence from the finish of Het Nieuwsblad.

Twelve months ago Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh were involved in an almighty cock-up, where they allowed Stannard to somehow overcome the huge odds to win in Ghent.

This year the Classics dream team wasn’t even able to get in the winning breakaway, leaving Boonen their highest finisher in 11th – sixth in the ‘sprint’ for the minor places.

Tony Martin crashed and finished nine minutes back; Terpstra and Vandenbergh finished 30th and 38th respectively.

Then, on Sunday, the team had two riders in the escape bunch – Boonen and Julien Vermote – but were unable to do anything to ensure the group worked hard enough to keep away.

It ended with Lukasz Wisniowski finishing fifth, but it will go down as a disappointing start to the cobbles season for the Belgian team.


Cycling Weekly’s essential guide to the cobbled Classics


Peter Sagan is not peaking too early

Peter Sagan in the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Peter Sagan in the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Ian Stannard decided to skip the opening weekend because last year he felt he was in too good condition at too early a point in the Classics season, leaving him deflated by the time Paris-Roubaix came around.

Peter Sagan, on the other hand, was clearly not on top form in either of the weekend’s races. On Saturday he had a chance to test his legs when he missed Luke Rowe‘s breakaway and worked hard to bridge the gap to the lead group.

He came second in the sprint with Van Avermaet – just like he did on the Tour’s 13th stage last year – but he was competing against a bunch of people in a similar state of form and fitness as him.

On Sunday he moaned that no-one wanted to work with him to bring back Jasper Stuyven and co – unsurprising really, given that he’d just shaft them at the end by beating them to the line.

He showed signs of what is to come later in the month, but for now Sagan has a lot left in the locker.

Luke Rowe continues to impress over the cobbles

Luke Rowe attacks in the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Luke Rowe attacks in the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Given Rowe’s performances in Paris-Roubaix in recent years, it’s somewhat of a surprise that Team Sky opted to put him in the races this weekend instead of Stannard.

Stannard wanted to rest a little longer, but Rowe, apparently, can start his campaign earlier. Neither Het Nieuwsblad nor Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne were training rides for Rowe either, with the Welshman animating both races by getting in the breakaways.

It was his break during Het Nieuwsblad that set up the eventual winning position, although his lack of finishing speed cost him against a wilier Van Avermaet.

On Sunday, when Elia Viviani had been derailed by the Oude Kwaremont, Rowe took it upon himself to get Team Sky something out of the race.

Again he made the right breakaway, but the exertions of the previous day meant that he could not hang on til the death, dropping back a few kilometres before the break was caught, finishing two minutes down on Stuyven.

Edward Theuns is remarkably consistent

Edward Theuns on the podium following the 2015 Scheldeprijs (Watson)

Edward Theuns on the podium following the 2015 Scheldeprijs (Watson)

In my research for both the weekend’s races I noticed the statistical nuance that Edward Theuns – now riding for Trek-Segafredo – finished 14th in both Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne last season.

Remarkably, and quite coincidentally, the Belgian finished eighth in both races this year and set a few tongues wagging about whether he can be Trek’s next big Classics rider.

The 24-year-old has a rival for that title, though, as Fabian Cancellara looks to hand over the baton at the end of 2016. Stuyven, who put in a Cancellara-like attack to win Kuurne with a late break, is a year younger than Theuns and came out of the weekend with two top-10 finishes.

Cancellara will be the leader for the remainder of the cobbled races, starting at E3 on Good Friday, but with another year of experience under their belts, Stuyven and Theuns could form quite the duo next season.