For the second year in a row, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The 31-year-old Belgian beat world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) in a slightly uphill sprint at the twisting Emile Claus Boulevard in Ghent.
After the race, Van Avermaet admitted that he wasn't the strongest rider in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday.
"I was the smartest rider rather than the strongest," Van Avermaet said at the post-race press conference.
Van Avermaet featured in front constantly once the race began heating up 70 kilometres from the finish, though he rarely took the initiative alone. The Olympic champion was glued on Jasper Stuyven's wheel on the Taaienberg and then hung on for dear life on Sagan's wheel at the following climbs.
"Peter Sagan was the strongest man in the race today. On the Eikenberg climb he was really impressive and I had to dig really deep to keep up. It's fun to race with him if you can keep up. I did feel confident because I was feeling stronger as the kilometres were going by. Sagan is difficult to beat in the sprint but it's not the first time he's paying the price for the initiative he's taking earlier in the race. After the finish he told me he didn't have much left for the sprint," Van Avermaet said.
When asked what Sagan should change in his racing style, Van Avermaet smiled. "We shouldn't make him too smart because otherwise we're not going to win many races."
Last year, Van Avermaet captured a breakthrough victory in the Omloop. Though he went on to crash out in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, he bounced back with a tremendous Tour de France and a surprise win at the Olympic Games road race.
"Last year, it was my first big win at a classic in Flanders. Now, it's the start of something beautiful," Van Avermaet said. This year, the build-up to the season was marred when he injured his ankle during a mountain bike training ride halfway through November.
"I had to rest four to six weeks longer than I usually do," he said. "It's weird to me because I'm someone who trains a lot over the winter. We didn't know how my body would respond to it but I was good in Valencia but I always had to go flat out. Also on Green Mountain [in Oman] I went flat out to improve my form. I realised that so far I didn't get a finish that suited me. That's why I was unable to get a win so far. It was always slightly too hard for me or slightly too easy. I knew I was in a great shape but being able to win today actually surprises me a bit."
Clearly the finish area that was introduced first in 2016 suits the Belgian rider. "I was really glad when I heard that the organisers would keep the finish in the same area like last year. It's a finish that suits me superbly. Even if we would finish with a group of twenty to thirty riders I would have a good chance to win here on a slightly uphill section," Van Avermaet said.
"I'm really satisfied that I was able to finish it on the same finish area. The race unfolded in the same way like last year. The team did their most important job and delivered me in position before the Taaienberg. We were able to ride away with the strongest riders after the Taaienberg-Eikenberg double. It's the way I like it the most, going from far out and keep riding with the manpower you have. We were the three strongest riders of the moment. We were all certain of a podium result if we kept riding. Then I managed to finish it in the sprint in Ghent. I rode the same sprint like last year. It was possible to go from far out with the tailwind. He went wide and I took the inside."
On Sunday, Van Avermaet will take the start in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. With his racing style, one can imagine he's not going to start there just to clock some kilometres. "I'm certainly going to try something. With the wind that was forecasted there should be possibilities," Van Avermaet told Sporza.