• Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) sprints to victory at the finish of the 2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (AAP/EPA/Laurent Dubrule) (AAP)Source: AAP
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) drew first blood in the spring-long battle of the strong men.
Cycling Central

Cycling Central
28 Feb 2016 - 10:09 AM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2016 - 10:10 AM

In a thrilling finish, Van Avermaet out sprinted rainbow bedecked Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) with a powerful kick to the line. Lotto-Soudal's Tiesj Benoot followed behind in third. The 2015 Flandrien of the Year was satisfied with his first victory of 2016. 

"It was really important for me to win the first Classics race of the season. I'm happy that I could finally win a Classic like this because I was close a few times here and I know how hard it is to win a Classic in the springtime," Van Avermaet said. 

"You never know how many victories you're going to have so I'm of course going to enjoy this one and hopefully I'll have more to come. Beating Sagan in a sprint like this only gives me more confidence."

"My main goal is still the Tour of Flanders and to already have this win in my pocket is the best way to start the season."

While an early 12 rider breakaway pulled clear gaining 5min 30 seconds on the peloton halfway through the race, it was Luke Rowe's (Sky) attack on the Taaienberg at 57km to go that proved the most decisive. Rowe drew Van Avermaet, while Benoot made his own pace up the climb to ultimately follow. Sagan initially missed the attack but sensing it was the move of the day, bridged the gap. 

The quartet then leap-frogged from group to group - the breakaway had fallen apart - to chase and catch the leaders. With 20km to go, Alexis Gougerd (AG2R La Mondiale) was the only rider from the original breakaway to survive Sagan's blistering pressure on the final cobbled section.

With no rider in the lead group, Etixx-Quickstep were left to control the peloton. It reduced the gap to 20 seconds with two kilometres remaining, but the group of five didn't let the opportunity go, having enough time to play cat and mouse on the final bend.

Van Avermaet began his sprint at the 200m mark, with a tired Sagan behind. 

“The break went a bit early. We worked well together but in the finale I saw the gap was coming down so I made two or three accelerations on the cobbles and this took it out of me. I started to feel the cramps in the final kilometres and Greg is in better shape than me with a few more race days," Sagan said.

"But there are more important races to come. For this time of the season I felt pretty good. It’s one month since my last race, and I’ve just been preparing and training. 

"It was a hard race today and in the finale I felt like in one or two weeks I’ll be better. But for now, it’s already a good sign," Sagan said. 

Tiesj Benoot was happy with his first Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. 

“I can hardly be disappointed with a third place where I started as a protected rider. I could rely on a fantastic team that reacted to every attempt in the peloton. That says a lot about the atmosphere and the shape of the whole team," he said. 

"The race exploded at the expected moment, at the Taaienberg. If men like Van Avermaet and Sagan attack, you simply have to follow them."  

Not confident of beating the others in a sprint finish, Benoot entertained thoughts of breaking away.

"I thought for a while that I could try to ride away, but at the end of the Lange Munte it was still about twenty kilometres towards the finish with a strong headwind. So it was very difficult. Eventually I rode a decent sprint, but Greg was the best and he’s the deserved winner," he said. 

"It’s a very good feeling to stand on the podium. It was really nice to be at the start here in my hometown, the atmosphere was simply fantastic," Benoot added.   

The day unfortunately didn't go all BMC's way with Phillipe Gilbert, Floris Gerts and Jempy Drucker in a nasty crash at the 50km to go mark and abandoning the race. Drucker and Gerts were taken to hospital for X-Rays. 

"At this stage, we have no further news of their condition. As soon as we know the results we will be able to provide an update and assess the next steps," said BMC team doctor, Dario Spinelli.