Belgian Greg Van Avermaet from BMC racing Team, front, celebrates as he wins the Belgian cycling classic Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Ghent, Belgium, on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. Slovak Peter Sagan from Bora-Hansgrohe and Belgian Sep Vanmarcke from Cannondale-
Olivier Matthys
February 25, 2017

GENT, Belgium (AP) Olympic road champion Greg Van Avermaet edged a three-man sprint to claim a second consecutive victory in the Het Nieuwsblad, which marks the start of the Spring classics.

For the second year in a row, the Belgian rider was faster than world champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia at the finish line on Saturday.

Another Belgian, Sep Vanmarcke, who took the initiative in the final sprint about 200 meters out, completed the podium.

''It's an amazing feeling. Last year, my season started here with a big victory and now it's the same this year,'' Van Avermaet said. ''It's nice to come home and to win the first race on home ground.''

The grueling race, which features cobble sections and punishing short climbs, was marred by a big pile-up about 62 kilometers (38.5 miles) from the finish. Two pre-race favorites, veteran Tom Boonen and Alexander Kristoff, fell on the narrow cobbled section. Both were able to resume racing but could not compete for the win, and Boonen ultimately abandoned because of pain in his knee.

With half the peloton trapped behind, Trek-Segafredo riders accelerated on the Taaienberg climb, a move that stretched the leading pack. Sagan attacked again in the Wolvenberg and the group of early breakaway riders was reined in soon after.

''It was really nice to come with three guys to the finish and wonderful that I could finish it off,'' Van Avermaet said. ''I had confidence from last year that I could win in a sprint to this finish.''

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