Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium on Saturday, in a cobbled-classic season opener that did not disappoint.
Belgian Olympic champion Van Avermaet beat world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to the line, with Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) in third.
Fans could not have wished for a more elite selection of the world’s best Classics riders, as the trio left their rivals in their wake over the cobblestone- and climb-filled 198km route.
Sagan had looked the strongest rider for much of the day, taking the lead over the cobbles and bergs of the latter part of the race. At times, he openly berated his companions, only to be met with a look of fatigue.
However, Sagan opened up his sprint too early within the final few hundred metres of the race, seemingly getting caught out by the final bend and allowing Van Avermaet to sprint ahead. Sagan sat up, with an evidently tired Vanmarcke rolling in for third.
One name conspicuously absent from the finale was Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors), who was forced to abandon his final appearance in the event after getting caught in a huge pile-up with 60km to go. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) was also caught in the incident.
Sagan, Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke had been part of an earlier attack group also comprising Andriy Grivko (Astana), Thomas Boudat (Direct Energie) and Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale).
The six riders had launched their move with around 50km to go as the race hit the Wolvenberg. Several teams – including Sky – missed the split, with 2014/15 winner Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe caught out.
The leaders steamed ahead, chasing down the day’s break of Gediminias Bagdonas (Ag2r), Justine Jules (WB Veranclassic), Mike Teunissen (Team Sunweb), Brian van Goethem (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Leigh Howard (Aqua Blue Sport) and Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
Teunissen somehow found the energy to keep up with the lead group, before a wobble into a muddy verge saw him lose traction and drop back.
As the leading three riders headed into the final 20km, a chase group containing Rowe started to claw back time, whittling the advantage down to 30 seconds.
However, they simply couldn’t close the gap and the chase was visibly conceded within the final 10km, allowing the leading three riders to contest the finish in Ghent.
Rowe came home in sixth place, 50 seconds down on Van Avermaet.
The opening weekend of the cobbled classics continues in Belgium on Sunday with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2017, 198km
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing, in 4-48-04
2. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
3. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Cannondale-Drapac, at same time
4. Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek-Segafredo, at 44 secs
5. Oscar Gatto (Ita) Astana, at 50 secs
6. Luke Rowe (GBr) Team Sky, at 50 secs
7. Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r
8. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo, at same time
9. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Quick-Step Floors, at 54 secs
10. Adrien Petit (Fra) Direct Energie, at 57 secs