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Having joined the decisive move on the Taaienberg, Van Avermaet was clearly the fastest in the five-rider sprint that decided Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, easily holding off Sagan and Benoot to claim his first big win on the cobbles

Photo: Sirotti

GREG VAN AVERMAET

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OMLOOP HET NIEUWSBLAD

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PETER SAGAN

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TIESJ BENOOT

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27.02.2016 @ 17:40 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) finaly claimed the big victory in a cobbled classic when he rode to an impressive victory in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the opening race on the Belgian calendar. Having joined the right move on the Taaienberg, he was confident enough to wait for a 5-rider sprint and easily held off Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) in the uphill dash to the line on a disastrous day for Etixx-QuickStep that didn’t have a single rider in the top 10.

 

Due to his numerous places of honour in the cobbled classics, Greg Van Avermaet has built a reputation as one of the most consistent riders but the big win has always eluded him. Paris-Tours features prominently on his palmares but the big win in his preferred Flemish classics has been missing.

 

However, it looked like things were finally going to change for the BMC rider when he beat Peter Sagan in an uphill sprint at the Tour de France. During the off-season  he made it clear that that performance had boosted his confidence massively and that he now knew that he was able to beat the fastest riders even in a sprint.

 

Maybe it was that confidence boost that made the difference in today’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as Van Avermaet finally took that elusive victory in the opening race of the Belgian season. And just like it was the case in the Tour de France, he claimed the biggest one-day win of his career by beating Sagan in an uphill dash to the line when five riders decided the race.

 

As it has so often been the case in the Belgian race, it was the climb of the Taaienberg with 57km to go that was the key point in the race. BMC had won the battle for the top positions and it was Daniel Oss and Van Avermaet who hit the climb first around a minute behind a leading quartet of Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r), Julien Morice (Direct Energie), Brecht Dhaene and Kai Reus (Verandas Willems) that was chased by Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Kristian House (ONE), Brian van Goethem (Roompot ), Stef van Zummeren (Verandas Willems),Maxime Farazijn (Topsport Vlaanderen), Zakkari Dempster (Bora-Argon 18) and Benoit Jarrier (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) .

 

That was crucial for Van Avermaet as he was in a great position when Luke Rowe (Sky) passed the pair and made a big attack. He quickly latched onto his wheel and the pair easily distanced the splintering peloton.

 

Tiesj Benoot realized the danger and alongside Peter Sagan and Oss he took off in pursuit. The young Belgian dropped his companions and quickly closed the gap while Sagan and Oss had a much harder time. Oss exploded completely but Sagan finally joined the group to turn it into a formidable quartet of pre-race favourites.

 

The acceleration had reduced the gap to 35 seconds and the four riders quickly started to cooperate well. However, as they hit the Eikenberg, Van Avermaet and Benoot did some serious damage as they distanced Sagan and Rowe. The pair had to dig deep but made it back before they hit the top of the climb.

 

In the peloton, Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Oliver Naesen (IAM), Gianni Moscon (Sky) and Scott Thwaites (Bora-Argon 18) attacked on the Eikenberg and started to pick up the remnants of the big chase group which had been passed by Van Avermaet’s quartet. Only Van Zummeren could hang on, meaning that a five-rider group formed behind the quartet which was still chasing the leader.

 

Gougeard and Reus managed to distance Morice and Dhaene who fell back to Van Avermaet group while things finally got organized in the peloton. Etixx-QuickStep had completely missed out and started to chase hard with Tony Martin, Nikolas Maes and Julien Vermote. As they went up the Wolvenberg, that pace was too much for Moreno Hofland (LottoNL-Jumbo) who was dropped.

 

With 46km to go, the peloton was 1.05 behind the front duo and they were dealt a serious blow when Martin crashed in a turn. He was quickly back on his bike but never managed to rejoin the peloton.

 

With 42k to go, the Van Avermaet group caught Reus and Gougeard, meaning that 8 riders had gathered in the front with a one-minute advantage over the peloton. That’s when disaster struck for the peloton as another crash brought down the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Jempy Drucker, Floris Gerts (BMC) and Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEDGE) and created a big split in the field. One of the riders that had to chase hard to get back was Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) while Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) found himself far back and would never rejoin the peloton.

 

Etixx-QuickStep didn’t slow down and as Terpstra rejoined the 40-rider group, they brought Chavanel’s chase group back with 35km to go. However, the gap was very stable and constantly hovered around the 50-second mark and this promoted Boy van Poppel (Trek) to contribute to the pace-setting.

 

As the peloton hit the Boembekeberg, the final climb of the day with 32km to go, Dries Devenyns (IAM) attacked but he was marked by Stig Broeckx (Lotto Soudal) and Trek shut it down with Giacomo Nizzolo. Instead, Edward Theuns (Trek) and Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Soudal) surged clear while the peloton exploded to pieces.

 

Marco Marcato (Wanty) took over the pace-setting in the peloton as they hit the Paddestraat cobbles with 30km to go. Devenyns took over and he made the peloton split as a small group with the likes of the IAM rider, Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff), Broeckx, Jens Debusschere, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal), Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-QuickStep) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek) caught Theuns and van der Sande.

 

Stuyven made an immediate counterattack and while the rest of the group was caught, he quickly reduced his deficit to 35 seconds. Etixx-QuickStep went back to work with Stijn Vandenbergh and Lukasz Wisniowski but they were unable to reduce the 35-second gap.

 

Stuyven’s progress stopped at 35 seconds and his attempt ended when he slid out in a turn with 20km to go. He managed to get back on his bike in time to pick up his place in the peloton which was still 50 seconds behind. Meanwhile, Reus had bad luck to puncture out of the lead group.

 

On the final cobbles at Lange Munte, Sagan accelerated hard and this sent both Dhaene and Morice out the back door. Gougeard was also briefly distanced but made it back before they returned to the tarmac.

 

Wisniowski and Vandenbergh were not getting any help as the gap stayed at 50 seconds for a long time. With 13km to go, LottoNL-Jumbo finally asked Mike Teunissen to lend a hand but it didn’t make any difference.

 

Nothing happened until Direct Energie decided to give it a shot with 6km to go. They put Chavanel and another rider on the front as they wanted to set Adrien Petit up for the sprint and that made a big difference. With 5km to go, the gap was 35 seconds and less than two kilometres later, it was just 25 seconds. Suddenly, it looked like the group was about to get caught as Niki Terpstra was now also taking huge turns for Etixx-QuickStep.

 

The gap stabilized at 20 seconds as the front quintet was still working well together and as they passed the flamme rouge, it was clear that they would make it. Gougeard made a dig with 800m to go but Sagan was on his wheel and the Frenchman ended up doing a lead-out.

 

After the pace briefly went down on the uphill finishing straight, Van Avermaet launched a long sprint. He immediately opened a gap and Sagan could not even hold onto his wheel, allowing Van Avermaet to take a dominant win. It was another second place for Sagan while Benoot held off Rowe and Gougeard in the fight for the final podium spot. Nine seconds later Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) beat Petit in the sprint for sixth.

 

With the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad now over, the attention in the Belgian opening weekend turns to tomorrow’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne where a host of sprinters will be brought in to ride alongside the classics riders that animated today’s race.

 

A traditional course

The 71st edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was held on a traditional 200.8km course that both started and finished in Ghent. Along the way, the riders had to cover 13 of the famous hellingen and numerous flat pave sectors. As usual, the first key point was expected to be the Taaienberg with 57.4km to go and from there another four climbs had to be done. The final challenge was the new climb of the Boembekeberg with 32.6km to go and then the riders faced the pave sectors of Paddestraat, Lippenhovestraat and Lange Munte during the flat run back to Ghent where a new uphill finishing straight greeted the riders.

 

It was a windy and sunny day in Ghent when the riders gathered for the start. All riders who had been registered for the race, were present when the start was given

 

12 riders get clear

As usual it was an aggressive initial phase with many attacks. Frederik Veuchelen (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) was one of the first to give it a try, but he had no luck.

 

Instead, it was an 8-man group with Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r), Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Kai Reus (Verandas Willems), Kristian House (ONE), Julien Morice (Direct Energie), Brian van Goethem (Roompot ), Stef van Zummeren (Verandas Willems) and Maxime Farazijn (Topsport Vlaanderen) that escaped, and they were soon joined by Zakkari Dempster (Bora-Argon 18), Hugo Hofstetter (Cofidis), Benoit Jarrier (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) and Brecht Dhaene (Verandas Willems). Hence, 12 riders were allowed to form the early break.

 

The chase gets organized

The gap was allowed to grow rapidly and after 21 km of racing, it was already 5.40. This naturally prompted Etixx-QuickStep to increase the pace as Iljo Keisse hit the front for the big home team. Several teams lend them a hand, and soon after Floris Gerts (BMC), Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) and Nikolai Trusov (Tinkoff) were active on the front.

 

The gap had dropped to 5.13 after 27 km of racing, and with Keisse as the locomotive the peloton still got closer. It was already down to 4.35 ten kilometers later.

 

Katusha come to the fore

The break managed to increase the lead on the first climb, Leberg, where it again went out to five minutes. At the same time Philippe Gilbert (BMC) had a puncture.

 

Keisse and Katusha were now the only team doing the work and held the gap at around five minutes after 75 kilometres of racing. At this time the riders hit the first series of climbs, including the famous Muur in Geraardsbergen, and it resulted in the first serious fight for position battle in the peloton. Sergey Lagutin (Katusha) strung out the group on the climb but there was no real damage.

 

A moment of calmness

With 120km to go, the gap was 4.40 and it had dropped to 3.25 as they entered the final 100km. Keisse and Lagutin were sharing the work before the peloton calmed down in the feed zone.

 

Pim Ligthart (Lotto Soudal), Floris Gerts (BMC), Nikolay Trusov (Tinkoff), Nils Politt (Katusha) and Keisse started to cooperate until Politt and Katusha took complete control. Things again calmed down and the gao stayed around 3.15 as they approached the second passage of the Haaghoek sector. Keisse won the sprint to hit the cobbles first but then order was again restored.

 

Katusha in control

The fight for position intensified with 80km to go where we had the first small crash with van Poppel and Ryan Anderson (Direct Energie). Keisse and Lagutin took a final turn until Marco Coledan took over Trek.

 

Katusha upped the pace with Lagutin and Vladimir Isaychev and brought the gap down to 2.45 with 75km to go. Meanwhile, Lotto Soudal captains Debusschere and Jurgen Roelandts had to work hard to rejoin the peloton at a time when the pace was very fast.

 

Hofstetter is dropped

Katusha made the peloton split slightly in the crosswinds as Lagutin and Isaychev set a fast pace. In the big fight for position, it was Trek that came out on top though, with Niccolo Bonifazio, Coledan and Markel Irizar all taking huge turns.

 

At the start of the Kruisberg with 67km to go, the gap was down to 1.50 and this prompted Reus to accelerate in the front group. Only House could match his speed but Gougeard made it back before the top of the climb. In the peloton, the big fight for position created a crash that ended the race for Dennis van Winden (LottoNL-Jumbo) and also involved Magnus Cort (Orica-GreenEDGE).

 

Oss hits the front

The front group got back together apart from Hofstetter who was picked up by the peloton which was 1.35 behind and led by Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff) and Rick Zabel (BMC). Bora also came to the fore until Tinkoff took complete control with Daniele Bennati and Maciej Bodnar.

 

On the Donderij cobbles, Reus attacked again and only Morice, Gougeard and Dhaene managed to rejoin him. Meanwhile, Michal Golas (Sky) and Jens Kekeuleire (Orica-GreenEDGE) were taken out of contention just before the riders hit the key climb of the Taaienberg. Oss won the battle for position and led the peloton onto the climb one minute behind the leaders before Rowe launched what would turn out to be the decisive move.

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