Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) drew first blood against in-form Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) as the pair continued their Milan-San Remo preparations at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Cavendish – who won the Belgian semi-Classic on his last appearance, with Team Sky in 2012 – outsprinted Kristoff and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) to notch up his sixth victory of the season.
Victory for the Manx Missile saw Etixx-QuickStep bounce back from the disappointment of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where Ian Stannard (Team Sky) took victory from a four-man break which featured three riders from the Belgian super team on a weekend of double British success.
And Cavendish hailed the way his team-mates responded to record the team’s 12th win of the season – of which the 29-year-old has half.
“I am super happy to win here in Kuurne,” he said. “It was far from easy against guys like Kristoff and Viviani. Kristoff is one of the best sprinters in the world and he is in super form.
“I’m proud to get a victory in my first sprint against him this year. It was hard all day and it wasn’t easy in the sprint.
“But I had great support from Etixx – Quick-Step and I’m happy to finish the job for the team.”
Etixx-QuickStep were the dominant team throughout the race, as they were at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before the finale, as the peloton split on the Oude Kwaremont.
Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) ignited the race on the cobbled climb, with QuickStep putting five riders in the 19-man move, including Cavendish, Tom Boonen and Zdenek Stybar.
And while the group didn’t build up enough of a lead to survive to the finish, with Katusha and Team Sky chasing hard having missed the split, Cavendish’s team-mates responded well to set him up for another sprint victory.
Cavendish was led out by last year’s winner, Tom Boonen, and praised the sacrifice made by the former champion.
“Tom’s won here three times, but he said on the bus this morning that he’d be my leadout today,” he said. “It could have been easy for him to want to go for his fourth win.
“But to commit for the sake of the team, and do what we had to do to win a race here is nice. Everyone turned their eyes to today and it was a good atmosphere from before the race all the way to the finish line.”
Cavendish’s next race will be the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race before he bids to win a second Milan-San Remo title on March 22.
John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), winner on the tough uphill sprint at the Dubai Tour, and Kristoff, who has four wins to his name so far this season,are both on form but Cavendish hopes to continue the momentum he has built up in recent weeks.
“Everything is going well and I’m super motivated with this kind of support from Etixx-QuickStep,” he added. “I am very happy with my form and we will see what happens next.”