By Nigel Wynn
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) notched up another hard-fought victory at Ghent-Wevelgem in Belgium on Sunday, completing a treble cobbled classics run to add to his wins in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke.
The Belgian Olympic road race champion had been the driving force in the latter stages of the race, putting himself in a move with compatriot Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) to distance a chase group containing classics rival and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Van Avermaet took a narrow win over Keukeleire in a sprint after 249km of racing, with Sagan rounding out the podium in third place.
At one point it looked as though the race would all come back together for a bunch sprint finish, but the work by Van Avermaet and Keukeleire ensured they evaded the clutches of Sagan and the following bunch.
The 2017 edition of Ghent-Wevelgem contained most of the ingredients we'd expect from the race: crosswinds and crashes, but with the addition of some controversial 'plugstreet' gravel road sectors for 2017 to add to the cobbles and bergs.
An escape group was slow to form after the start in Deinze, but eventually nine riders went clear: Loïc Chetout (Cofidis), Christophe Mason (WB Veranclassic), Hugo Houle (Ag2r), Mark McNally (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Ryan Mullen (Cannondale-Drapac), Jay Robert Thomson (Dimension Data), Dennis van Winden (Israel Cycling Academy) and Elmar Reinders (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij).
As they navigated the opening flatter half of the race, it was evident that crosswinds were starting to whip up. The escape group was strung out across the road, and behind the peloton split after 50km.
Classics specialists Quick-Step Floors massed at the head of the first splint to drive up the pace and force more of a gap, but eventually the peloton came back together. The regrouping of the bunch played into the hands of the break, as the pace eased off and the escape's gap increased to just under eight minutes.
Prior to tackling Catsberg, the first climb of the day, the break had 7-45 over the bunch, but that soon started to be chipped away over the following bergs.
With the roads narrowing and the pace picking up, there were several crashes that ruled riders out from the race: Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Gianni Moscon (Sky) and Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) were among those held up.
Numerous attacks were launched from the fragmenting bunch, and the break had also split up with Van Hecke the last rider left out front. He put in a valiant effort to keep his position.
As the riders hit the gravel sectors, there was some caution with many mindful of the rough roads' loose surfaces on the corners. Although the sectors did little to add to the ingredients of the race, they did claim Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) who suffered a puncture and dropped off the pace.
Van Hecke was finally reeled in with 40km to go. Shortly after, the bunch hit the final ascent of the Kemmelberg. The traditional flashpoint of the race once again provided the platform for the final selection.
Van Avermaet was first to attack, accelerating up the climb with a pace that no-one could match. John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) tried to keep in touch, but it was only Sagan that could make the junction. Degenkolb linked up on the descent, and then they were joined by two chase groups to form a unit of 14 riders.
British hope Ian Stannard (Team Sky) was one of those caught on the wrong side, along with the massed ranks of Lotto-Soudal. Despite their effort to try and catch the leaders, they could not.
Van Avermaet attacked again, with Keukeleire in attendance. Sagan, Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) and Soren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) tried to follow them but by 12km to go the gap had stretched to 14 seconds, with the bunch a minute back.
Sagan - the stronger rider in the chase group - looked to be displeased with the amount of work he was having to do to drag Terpstra and Kragh Andersen, and he eventually held back. Without Sagan's fully committed firepower, the chasers lost their momentum.
Heading into the final 3km the gaps between the two leaders, the Sagan group and bunch started to close up, so much so that it looked like everyone was going to get swallowed up on the line.
However, a full-on sprint by both Van Avermaet and Keukeleire ensured that they came in first and second, with Sagan hanging on for third.
Next Sunday, April 2, the riders will contest the second Monument of the season, the Tour of Flanders. Few would bet against Van Avermaet and Sagan appearing on the podium once again: the question will be which rider will occupy the top step.
Ghent-Wevelgem 2017, 249km
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team, in 5-39-05
2. Jens Keukeleire (Bel) Orica-Scott, at same time
3. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 6 secs
4. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Quick-Step Floors
5. John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo
6. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
7. Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
8. Michael Matthews (Aus) Team Sunweb
9. Fernando Gaviria (Col) Quick-Step Floors
10. Sacha Modolo (Ita) UAE Team Emirates, all same time
21. Ian Stannard (GBr) Team Sky, at same time
29. Scott Thwaites (GBr) Dimension Data, at same time
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