In-form Van Avermaet wins 3rd cobbled classic this year

Benoît NOEL
L-R: Belgian Jens Keukeleire of Orica Scott, Belgian Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing Team and Slovakian Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe celebrate on the podium on March 26, 2017 in Wevelgem after the Gent-Wevelgem one day cycling race

Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet completed a 48-hour cobbled classic double by winning Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

The 31-year-old edged out Belgian compatriot Jens Keukeleire in a two-up sprint finish to the 249km 79th edition of the race, just two days after also winning E3 Harelbeke for the second time.

It was Van Avermaet's third win on the cobbles in the last month having also won February's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

It sets up the BMC rider as clear favourite for next weekend's Tour of Flanders, the second high-profile 'Monument' race of the season where he has already finished second in 2014 and third a year later.

"I can't hide it any longer, I will without a doubt be the man to beat -- the favourite," admitted Van Avermaet.

"I didn't think I could win this course which is suited to pure sprinters.

"I was audacious and that created an ideal situation for me."

Van Avermaet has never won a Monument race despite being one of his generation's best cobbled one-day classics specialists.

But he comes into the two major objectives of his season over the next two weekends -- Flanders and then Paris-Roubaix -- with brimming confidence and in the form of his life.

Van Avermaet will be eager to make amends for his Flanders disaster last season when he broke his collarbone in a crash with four team-mates, failing to finish the race and then missing Paris-Roubaix.

But since coming back to racing, the former nearly-man has enjoyed the best period of his life, winning Olympic gold in Rio after holding the Tour de France yellow jersey for three days last July.

He will face stiff competition in Flanders from world champion Peter Sagan, who took third place in Wevelgem, a few seconds back after out-sprinting 2014 Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra.

Sagan, who was second to Van Avermaet at Omloop Het Nieuswblad, won both Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders last year.

But he was left angry with Terpstra, whom he felt refused to help chase down the lead duo.

"Terpstra rode more to make me lose the race than to try to win it himself," complained the Slovak.

Van Avermaet had opened hostilities with 35km left with an attack on the Mont Kemmel climb that was originally followed only by Sagan.

Several further attacks resulted in a two-man lead group with three chasers -- Sagan, Terpstra and Dane Soren Kragh Andersen -- but they fail to work together effectively.