Michael Valgren (Astana) won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium on Saturday, taking the biggest win of his career to date.
The 26-year-old Dane and his Astana team-mates Alexey Lutsenko and Oscar Gatto had put themselves into the race-winning, 12-rider group in the finale of the opening cobbled classic of the 2018 season.
The Astana trio then used their numerical advantage wisely heading towards the finish, with Valgren launching a solo attack in the final two kilometres of the 196.2km race to take the victory.
Lukasz Wisniowski (Team Sky) placed second with Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) completing the podium in third.
British riders Owain Doull (Team Sky) and Scott Thwaites (Dimension Data) finished in 11th and 13th respectively.
How it happened
After a start in clear, cold conditions in Ghent the day's early escape group formed up, comprising 10 riders: Tim Ariesen (Roompot Nederlandse Loterij), Dries De Bondt (Vérandas Willems-Crelan), Marco Mathis (Katusha-Alpecin), Edward Planckaert (Sport Vlaanderen Baloise), Michael Van Staeyen (Cofidis), Kenneth Van Bilsen (Cofidis), Brian van Goethem (Roompot Nederlandse Loterij), Michael Svendgaard (Fortuneo Samsic), Ludwig De Winter (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect) and Aleksejs Saramotins (Bora-Hansgrohe).
This group extended out a gap of five minutes, which held steady after the first of 13 climbs of the day: the Leberg.
Despite the dry road surfaces, there were several minor crashes in the bunch as the chase was starting to get wound up and teams jockeyed for position. Italian Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) was one of those who withdrew from the race due to a spill.
With 80km to go and before the second time up Leberg, the break started to split. Six riders made up the leading group: De Bondt, De Winter, Saramotins, Van Bilsen, van Goethem and Planckaert. With 70km to go, the peloton was less than two minutes in arrears.
At this point there was more and more activity in the bunch, with riders launching attacks. Van Avermaet was one of the first to make a strong move, perhaps testing his legs – and assessing how strong his rivals were looking.
Saramotins was the last rider from the break to be caught with 42km to go. Shortly after, Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) shot off the front on the Berendries climb, followed by Van Avermaet.
They were then caught by a group of riders, with Wellens' team-mate Tiesj Benoot deciding to put in a solo attack. He was also caught with 25km to go, and before the riders tackled the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) attacked on the Muur, opening up a gap as Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) gave chase and the pack broke to pieces. As any fan of the classics would hope, the Muur had once again proved to be the decisive flashpoint of the race.
After the Muur, Vanmarcke and Stybar were later joined by a group of ten riders with 11km to go. Among them were Valgren, Lutsenko, Gatto, Van Avermaet, Belgian champion Oliver Naesen (Ag2r), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and cyclocross world champion Wout Van Aert (Veranda's Willems Crelan).
This group of a dozen riders managed to push out a significant gap over the chasers, and the final selection to contest the race win was made.
Astana used their numbers wisely, launching their own attacks and then marking those of their rivals. Valgren made his move inside 2km to go, and no-one responded from the group. Belatedly, Vanmarcke and Wisniowski gave chase but Valgren had opened up too much of a gap and could not be caught.
Vanmarcke's huge efforts in the second half of the race showed in the final 500 metres. He simply could not fend off Wisniowski and had to settle for third place.
Valgren's high-profile victory will be a very welcome boost for the Astana team, as the squad has reportedly yet to receive its funds for the 2018 season.
Many of the riders taking part in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad will also take part in Sunday's Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a flatter race that often favours sprinters.
Christina Siggaard (Virtu Cycling Women) won the 122.1-kilometre women's edition of Omlopp Het Nieuwsblad. The Dane sprinted ahead of American Alexis Ryan (Canyon SRAM) in second, and Italian Maria Confalonieri (Valcar PBM) completed the podium in third.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2018 (men)
1. Michael Valgren (Den) Astana
2. Lukasz Wisniowski (Pol) Team Sky, at 12 secs
3. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) EF Education First-Drapac
4. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
5. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
6. Edward Theuns (Bel) Team Sunweb
7. Bert Van Lerberghe (Bel) Cofidis
8. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
9. Arnaud Demare (Fra) Groupama FDJ
10. Marcus Burghardt (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, at same time
11. Owain Doull (GBr) Team Sky
13. Scott Thwaites (GBr) Dimension Data
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2018 (women)
1. Christina Siggaard (Den) Virtu Cycling Women
2. Alexis Ryan (USA) Canyon SRAM
3. Maria Confalonieri (Ita) Valcar PBM
4. Chloe Hosking (Aus) Alé Cipollini
5. Coryn Rivera (USA) Team Sunweb
6. Nina Kessler (Ned) Hitec Products
7. Jeanne Korevaar (Ned) WaowDeals Pro Cycling
8. Jolien D'hoore (Bel) Mitchelton-Scott
9. Marta Cavalli (Ita) Valcar PBM
10. Audrey Cordon (Fra) Wiggle High5
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