GENT, Belgium (AP) Italian veteran Luca Paolini posted his first victory in nearly two years after overcoming difficult weather conditions to win the Gent-Wevelgem classic on Sunday.
The 38-year-old Paolini pulled away from his breakaway companions with about five kilometers (three miles) to go to prevail in the heavy wind and rain and derail the sprinters' ambitions.
Paolini, whose previous victory dated back to May 2013 when he claimed a stage win at the Giro d'Italia, won ahead of Niki Terpstra of the Netherlands and British rider Geraint Thomas.
''This is a surprise but I'm so happy to have won,'' said Paolini, who crashed during the 239-kilometer (148.5-mile) ride. ''I don't think I was the strongest but I played my cards. I knew they'd be waiting for the sprint and so I tried to get away with five kilometers to go.''
The extremely windy conditions made the Flanders classic featuring short climbs and cobblestone sections even more demanding. Riders struggled to stay on their bikes and Thomas was blown off the road and onto the grass by a gust of wind about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the finish. The Briton, who won the E3 Harelbeke classic on Friday, was lucky to escape uninjured from the spectacular crash and quickly rejoined the winning group.
After early breakaway rider Jurgen Roelandts was reined in with about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) remaining, Paolini's attack left his rivals without reaction and it was too late when they finally decided to chase him.
''It was a very difficult day,'' said Paolini. ''I crashed, and I had to change my bike, but I know the course very well. And I knew where I had to be today. The wind was impressive. I wasn't sure if I could carry on. To win in conditions like this, with the wind and the cold, it's amazing.''