Five things we learned from the start of the Spring Classics

Greg van Avermaet and Peter Sagan set the tone for an enthralling cobbled campaign to come

While Storm Doris may have led us to think otherwise, with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne taking place over the weekend, spring has sprung.

The traditional curtain-raiser to the Spring Classics delivered its usual dose of enthralling action, leaving plenty to be excited about for the cobbled Classics to come.

Greg van Avermaet won the former, the Olympic champion beating world champion Peter Sagan to successfully defend the title he won last year.

Peter Sagan and Greg van Avermaet were in winning form at the start of the Spring Classics (pic: Sirotti)

But the man in the rainbow jersey fought back the following day to win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and seal his first win of the season.

So what have we learned from our first taste of the cobble-busting action this weekend?

Greg van Avermaet: the contender

Lady luck did not shine too favourably on Greg van Avermaet last spring. Just when it looked as though he was ready to deliver on his undoubted potential in the cobbled Classics, he crashed out of the Tour of Flanders with a broken collarbone.

Third at both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2015, Olympic champion van Avermaet has now won the last two editions of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and will return to Tour of Flanders among the favourites again in April.

Greg van Avermaet celebrates victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – yet more proof he has gone from nearly-man to serious challenger (pic – Sirotti)

We said before the weekend we were relishing the battle between the Olympic champion and world champion Peter Sagan on the cobbles, and we were rewarded with a first taste of what could follow almost immediately.

Van Avermaet got the upper hand, beating Sagan and perennial contender Sep Vanmarcke, and in doing so proved once again he has gone from nearly-man to serious challenger.

Flanders crash aside, 2016 was a pivotal year for Van Avermaet, also including overall success at Tirreno-Adriatico, a stage win at the Tour de France and that Olympic gold medal.

He has found a way to turn podium finishes into big wins, and a first Monument is surely next on the cards?

Peter Sagan: the new king of the cobbles

Of course, the main man out to stop Van Avermaet will be Peter Sagan, with a rivalry that has quietly bubbled along in recent years beginning to reach boiling point.

With Fabian Cancellara retired, and Tom Boonen retiring, the Spring Classics needs a new headline rivalry and the man with the rainbow jersey up against the Olympic champion has the makings of a fascinating duel.

Peter Sagan roared back at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and could be in line for a period of domination on the cobbles (pic – Sirotti)

Van Avermaet drew first blood at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but if Sagan was hurting he hid it well before sprinting to victory at the more sprinter-friendly Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day.

Sagan kickstarted his first year in the rainbow jersey with a victory on the cobbles – on that occasion having to wait until Gent-Wevelgem.

It the set the tone for a success-filled season to follow, and having reached the top step of the podium several weeks earlier this time out his rivals – Van Avermaet included– should be very afraid.

Sagan, it is easy to forget, is still only 27 – a full decade younger than Mat Hayman was when he won Paris-Roubaix last season.

The Slovakian’s rivalry with Van Avermaet promises to be enthralling, but if Sagan triumphs it could be a long era of dominance beckoning for the extroverted superstar.

Luke Rowe: onwards and upwards

Welshman Luke Rowe’s first podium finish in a Classic marked another chapter in the Team Sky man’s rise as a contender on the cobbles.

Rowe, 26, followed up sixth place at the Omloop with third at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and the Welshman is certainly one of Team Sky’s best hopes of ending their long search for a cobbled Classics winner.

Luke Rowe is continuing to show himself as a decent contender on the cobbles (pic – Sirotti)

Team-mate Ian Stannard – third at last year’s Paris-Roubaix – took more of a back seat this time out, but also showed he has good legs with some strong rides over the weekend, but it Rowe starting to steal the headlines.

Both Brits must share the confidence Rowe exuded after his third-place finish, stating on he’d be disappointed not to make the race-winning split on the cobbles these days.

Attentive, powerful, and clearly in form, Rowe is still waiting for a first victory on the cobbles but with form like he showed over the weekend, that day is surely getting closer.

Tom Boonen: a rare missing piece

Four times a Paris-Roubaix winner, three victories at the Tour of Flanders, five at E3 Harelbeke, three at Gent-Wevelgem and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, two Scheldeprijs wins and Dwars door Vlaanderen success back in 2007: Tom Boonen has won it all – except one.

And with his retirement imminent, Belgium’s King of the Cobbles will leave the peloton having never tasted victory at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Tom Boonen has never won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – a rare missing piece on his palmares (pic – BrakeThrough Media/QuickStep)

He should have done, of course – he was part of the trio of Etixx-QuickStep riders out-foxed by Ian Stannard in their four-man race-winning move back in 2015.

But a crash ended his hopes of righting that anomaly on his palmares this time out – a reminder of what a cruel mistress the cobbled Classics can be.

With illness then ruling Boonen out of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne – the last cobbled Classic he won – time is running out for one final hurrah for Tornado Tom.

That the entire QuickStep team ended the first weekend of cobbled Classics action empty-handed is indicative of how Patrick Lefevere’s men have seen their star wane in recent times too.

If there’s to be a fairytale ending to Boonen’s career, both rider and team have a lot to do between now and Paris-Roubaix.

Tony Martin: how’s your luck?

When he stormed to victory on the cobbled stage of the 2015 Tour de France, claiming the yellow jersey in the process, Tony Martin looked to have emerged as a serious contender for the cobbled Classics.

After all, his ability go deep when it matters and an engine and hard-man status that have earned him his Panzerwagen nickname are certainly Classic-winning attributes.

And having left QuickStep Floors this winter to join Katusha-Alpecin, there looked to be an opportunity to enjoy some success in the spring, forming a two-pronged attack with Alexander Kristoff.

Tony Martin was out of luck at the start of his first cobbled Classics campaign with Katusha-Alpecin (pic – Sirotti)

The 31-year-old world time trial champion has had better weekends in his career, however – involved in the crash at the Omloop which also took out Boonen and Kristoff, Martin crashed again at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, requiring eight stitches to his face.

He seemed in decent enough spirits in sharing his war wounds with Twitter afterwards, but the German’s going to need a lot more luck if he’s to add a Classic win to his already hugely impressive palmares.

Having only raced both the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix for the first time last spring, he is still very much an unknown for both races – and you wouldn’t back him at the moment.

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