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Van Avermaet no longer the nearly man

CEPAGATTI, Italy (VN) — Greg Van Avermaet not only won Tirreno-Adriatico’s stage 6 in a fierce battle Monday through central Italy, but he took the blue leader’s jersey as well and positioned himself to win the race overall. All of this bodes well for the Belgian ahead of the big one-day classics starting Sunday.

BMC’s Van Avermaet rode the Peter Sagan/Tinkoff express train to the hilltop town in Abruzzo. When Sagan struck, he wisely rode his slipstream and benefited the most. With the bonus seconds, and a seven-second lead over Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick-Step) and eight seconds over Sagan, he could also win the overall classification Tuesday when the race ends in San Benedetto del Tronto.

“This stage is similar to the one I won last year [in Arezzo], with a similar finish,” Van Avermaet said in Cepagatti’s historic castle, two flights above the finish line.

“The parcours suited me. You always pick your stages here, and the race has been good for me. This race is about preparing for the classics but is also nice to win a stage. It boosts your confidence for the classics.”

Since Arezzo, Van Avermaet bagged the Tour de France stage in Rodez, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and today’s Tirreno stage — all ahead of world champion Sagan.

Sagan may wear the rainbow stripes, but the 30-year-old Belgian could be the rider to watch in the classics. In the monuments, he placed third in both Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix last year. In 2014, he finished runner-up in Flanders.

In Tirreno, he benefited from Tinkoff’s work for Sagan and Zdenek Stybar’s race to save his blue jersey. With BMC teammate Tejay van Garderen behind, he gambled and sat on the train into town. Sagan took the bonus sprint, 23 kilometers from the finish, but Van Avermaet laughed last in Cepagatti.

“I’ve always been confidence that I had a fast sprint finish, especially after a hard race. But sometimes you really have to fight for position in the sprints, cycling is hard business. You’ve got to look after yourself,” he added.

“I sprinted for myself in the early years of my career and then helped other riders on flat sprints. I think I’m getting stronger as a rider. Now, I’m not aiming for all the sprints, but I’m focusing on the hard, uphill sprints. I think that is my strength, and I’ve got to focus on it.”

The sprint likely won him the overall title of the race, which was crippled when organizer RCS Sport cut the queen stage due to bad weather. The race now favors sprinters and attacking cyclists like Van Avermaet. Even if the overall victory slips away, Monday’s win bodes well for Van Avermaet with Milano-Sanremo on Saturday and the following classics from E3 Harelbeke on to Paris-Roubaix.

Sagan, one of the favorites, should be on alert. “It’s always nice to beat the world champion. I tried to beat him in the Richmond worlds but he beat me there,” Van Avermaet said. “I hope that he wins a lot of races this year, but its nice to have him finish second behind me.”