BMC's Greg Van Avermaet avenged a painful loss from two years ago to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in a sprint over World Champion Peter Sagan of Tinkoff. Showing remarkable power in the final frantic stages of a semi-eventful opening Belgian semi-cassic, Van Avermaet sniffed out the winning move, rode calmly in the subsequent break, and timed his sprint just right to defeat one of the world's best sprinters on a stretch of road just miles from his home. With the win, Van Avermaet becomes a Belgian classic winner at long last, putting to bed an increasingly painful narrative just in time for 2016.
In the women's race, which was not shown during the broadcast of the men's event, World Champion Lizzie Armitstead opened up her rainbow defense with a solo victory from the Lippenhovestraat stretch of cobbles, a stunning ride for her first-ever appearance in rainbow. Chantal Blaak and Tiffany Cromwell rounded out the podium. Details in comments (help!) as they become available.
Van Avermaet showing the way. Photo by Dirk Waem, Getty
After a reasonably calm day, the race blew up for good on the Taaienberg as Luke Rowe of Sky blasted forward audaciously, drawing only Van Avermaet for immediate company. Tiesj Benoot of Lotto was next, and before long Sagan got clear of the peloton as well, with Daniel Oss hanging on his wheel for part of the way up to Rowe before he lost Sagan's wheel. The World Champion made the juncture with Rowe and company around when they met up with stragglers from the day's early break, giving them an eleven-rider lead group for a few minutes. Well, until the Eikenberg, at which point the stars made for a four-man assault. By the Wolvenberg, the peloton were 1.04 back, with Etixx-Quick Step riding desperately to save face -- an effort that was looking impressive until Tony Martin crashed coming off the Holleweg, disrupting the team's efforts and briefly scattering the field.
Crashes began to take their toll, as Philippe GIlbert and Jempy Drucker were left behind after hitting the deck on the Haaghoek, while Matt Hayman and Floris Gerts could not continue. The crash may have been related to spectator interference. The leaders, now absorbing Kai Reus and Gougeard from the early break, did little to sort themselves out on the barrage of cobbles and the fractured peloton remained within 50 seconds of them as the final two climbs loomed, with a chase group of Moscon, Thwaites and Sebastian Chavanel briefly in between.
On the final two climbs and bits of cobbles little changed apart from Jasper Stuyven making a heroic attempt to bridge up across the almost one-minute gap to the front, while the peloton regrouped behind. Stuyven halved the gap before sliding out in a corner and settling back into the peloton. Sagan hit the gas on the Lange Munte, which shed the guys from the early break, except for Alexis Gougeard of AG2R who refused to go silently.
Under 10km to go Quick Step finally began to chip away at the break, as it dropped from 50 seconds to 25 in very little time. The gap got as low as 18 seconds, but the leaders -- with race radios in their ears -- stayed disciplined until the home stretch. There, the favorites positioned Gougeard on the front and readied their sprints, with Sagan mostly second wheel until the Frenchman moved off. From there, Sagan and Van Avermaet were side-by-side, with Benoot just behind, as the Belgian opened up his sprint with some 150 meters remaining. It was then that the World Champion hesitated, or faltered, and Van Avermaet was unchallenged as he won by a length. Benoot held on for third, then Rowe and Gougeard, while Jens Debusschere of Lotto-Soudal won the bunch sprint for sixth just nine seconds behind the winner.
Big losers on the day are everyone on Etixx-Quick Step and Alexander Kristoff, or at least the conventional wisdom surrounding him. The reigning Flanders winner was last seen hanging on to the peloton in the closing stages, but it's fair to expect him to brush off any disappointment, this far in advance of the bigger goals. But EQS brought a powerhouse squad, as they always do, with the hopes of scoring one iconic win that has eluded them since Nick Nuyens did the honors in 2005. But they were not only outsmarted in the end, they were nowhere to be seen on the Taaienberg where the key move was made. It almost came back together for them, but the story of their race won't give them much credit for that. Ultimately they were completely shut out, which is a bad look for Belgium's biggest heavyweight.
Results -- Men
- VAN AVERMAET Greg, BMC Racing Team, 4:54:12
- SAGAN Peter, Tinkoff, s.t.
- BENOOT Tiesj, Lotto Soudal, s.t.
- ROWE Luke, Team Sky, s.t.
- GOUGEARD Alexis, AG2R La Mondiale, at 0:06
- DEBUSSCHERE Jens, Lotto Soudal, at 0:09
- PETIT Adrien, Direct Energie, s.t.
- THEUNS Edward, Trek - Segafredo, s.t.
- STUYVEN Jasper, Trek - Segafredo, s.t.
- LADAGNOUS Matthieu, FDJ, s.t.
Results -- Women
- ARMITSTEAD Elizabeth, Boels - Dolmans Cycling Team, 3:23:05
- BLAAK Chantal, Boels - Dolmans Cycling Team, at 0:29
- CROMWELL Tiffany, Canyon SRAM Racing, s.t.
- KIRCHMANN Leah, Team Liv-Plantur, s.t.
- OLDS Shelley, Cylance Pro Cycling, s.t.
- BRAND Lucinda, Rabobank-Liv Woman Cycling Team, s.t.
- HOSKING Chloe, Wiggle High, s.t.
- ZORZI Susanna, Lotto Soudal Ladies, s.t.
- SMALL Carmen, Cervélo-Bigla Pro Cycling, s.t.
- JOHANSSON Emma, Wiggle High, s.t.
One for good measure...
Muur dreams... Photo by Dirk Waem, Getty