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Armitstead and Van Avermaet prevail in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Kirchmann fourth

World champion Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain/Boels-Dolmans) and Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium/BMC) drew first blood in this year's Spring Classics with wins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Gent, Belgium on Saturday.

Can Lizzie Deignan (née Armitstead) repeat?

World champion Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain/Boels-Dolmans) and Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium/BMC) drew first blood in this year’s Spring Classics with wins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Gent, Belgium on Saturday. Van Avermaet triumphed in a five-man sprint, edging out Peter Sagan (Slovakia/Tinkoff). Armitstead, who was third place in the Omloop over the last two seasons, held off a formidable chase to take her first Omloop. Canadian Leah Kirchmann came fourth, the top place for her new Liv-Plantur squad.

In the women’s race, two-time runner-up Ellen van Dijk (The Netherlands/Boels-Dolmans) attacked on the cobbled Molenberg hill with 35-km to go, nullifying Lotto-Soudal Belgian Jessie Daams’ breakaway. However Armitstead and Gracie Elvin (Australia/Orica-AIS) shook away on the penultimate section of cobbles and took a 40-second lead into the final 2.5-km section.

Armitstead left the Aussie behind and then had to fend off a strong chase of champion Anna Van der Breggen (The Netherlands/Rabobank-Liv), 2013 champion Tiffany Cromwell (Australia/Canyon-SRAM) and Amy Pieters (The Netherlands/Wiggle High5). With 5-km to go Armitstead held 35-seconds. It was a Boels-Dolmans one-two as Chantal Blaak claimed the runner-up spot while Cromwell took third.

Straight from the gun of the men’s race, a breakaway of a dozen riders slipped away and played with a 5:00 gap for the first third of the race, with Iljo Keisse (Belgium) toiling steadily at the front of the peloton for Etixx-QuickStep. By the third hellingen, the Muur, the gap had tumbled.

In the second half of the race, the hills and the cobbled straats came thick and fast. Katusha and Trek took over the front. Before the second passage of the Haaghoek cobbles, the gap was down to 3:00. Riders in the peloton began to fall away, most to become DNF’s. Positioning leading into the climbs became crucial at this point, with a bright yellow Tinkoff clot surging to the front, Peter Sagan at its nucleus.

The fifth from last hill, the Kruisberg, along with the next cobbled section of Donderij, took its toll on the breakaway, and the dozen began to dissolve. On the Taaienberg, with 57-km remaining, Luke Rowe (Great Britain/Sky) and Van Avermaet attacked in the gutter, drawing Sagan and Van Avermaet’s Italian teammate Daniel Oss. After riding Oss off his wheel, Sagan linked up with Rowe, Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan and remnants of the breakaway.

Benoot’s acceleration near the top of the Eikenberg with 52-km to go put everyone except Van Avermaet in trouble and the Lotto-Soudal rider set his sights on the four escapees still in front. Sagan and Rowe made it back to the Lowlanders with only two fugitives left in the lead.

Meanwhile, Etixx-QuickStep was working furiously in the peloton to bring back the threatening move. Perhaps it was this frantic effort that saw a couple of Etixx men come down in a crash. Tony Martin (Germany) wrecked right at the front of the bunch and took down Dutch teammate Niki Terpstra. With 41-km remaining, the Sagan group reached the two leaders to make an octet with a 1:00 lead on the Etixx-led peloton, delayed after another major crash involving BMC.

Sylvain Chavanel, the veteran French buccaneer, headed up a chase group that began to eat into the Sagan gang’s lead, but the refocused peloton lassoed it. The gap was 45-seconds with 33-km to go, balanced on the knife edge. The Sagan lost one of the men from the early break and Jasper Stuyvens (Belgium/Trek) lit out from the much-reduced peloton in a desperate attempt to replace him.

The hills and cobbles were all dispatched with 20-km to go. Stuyven’s effort ended when he crashed. It was a straight-out fight between the leading septet and Etixx-QuickStep behind, with Terpstra and Martin back in the fold. Then, up front only Alexis Gougeard (France/AG2R) remained from the early fugitives. With 13-km remaining, the gap was 50-seconds.

The riders in the Sagan quintet had to be wary of the uphill finish in Gent, though the grades were nothing like on any of the 11-hellingen they had climbed. When Direct Energie went to front the gap fell to 38-seconds and it fell further with 3-km to race. Antoine Duchesne was part of the Direct Energie engine and finished top Canadian at 37th.

It would come down to a sprint. Gougeard led into the final kilometre, with Sagan second wheel. But it was Greg Avermaet, a punchy rider denied again and again over the last two Classics seasons, who had the legs to take the victory. Sagan was the runner-up and Benoot rounded out the podium.

2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Women’s Race
1) Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain/Boels-Dolmans) 3:23:05
2) Chantal Blaak (The Netherlands/Boels-Dolmans) +0:29
3) Tiffany Cromwell (Australia/Canyon-SRAM) s.t.
4) Leah Kirchmann (Canada/Liv-Plantur) s.t.
19) Joelle Numainville (Canada/Cervelo-Bigla) s.t.
46) Lex Albrecht (Canada/Bepink) +4:09
75) Annie Ewart (Canada/UnitedHealthcare) +8:56

2016 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
1) Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium/BMC) 4:45:12
2) Peter Sagan (Slovakia/Tinkoff) s.t.
3) Tiejs Benoot (Belgium/Lotto-Soudal) s.t.
37) Antoine Duchesne (Canada/Direct Energie) +0:24
90) Ryan Anderson (Canada/Direct Energie) +9:21
107) Hugo Houle (Canada/AG2R) +13:27