Greg Van Avermaet delivers the ride of his career on a challenging Rio parcours to claim Olympic gold ahead of Jakob Fuglsang and Rafal Majka

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) — Greg Van Avermaet claimed a gold medal for Belgium in the men’s Olympic road race Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, sprinting to a clear victory in a three-man finish ahead of Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang and Poland’s Rafal Majka at Fort Copacabana.

Van Avermaet and Fuglsang bridged to a soloing Majka, the last survivor of a three-man escape after Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Colombia’s Sergio Henao crashed on a tricky descent, in the waning moments of a grueling 237.5-kilometer race. The clear favorite for the ensuing sprint, Van Avermaet waited until the final 200 meters to launch, and then easily distanced his two rivals to take the victory.

“I am so happy for gold. Everyone said all week it was for everyone else,” said Van Avermaet, who mostly flew under-the-radar ahead of the race on such a climber-friendly course.

“It was a stressful race with all the crashes. There was a lot of risk-taking.”

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A six-man breakaway got clear around 20km into the race with several big hitters in the group, among them former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland, Colombia’s Jarlinson Pantano, Switzerland’s Michael Albasini, and Germany’s Simon Geschke.

Their gap plateaued at more than seven minutes but then it began to gradually drop. With 90km left it was only just over two minutes.

70km from the finish, Van Avermaet got into a counter-attack that also featured Great Britain’s Geraint Thomas and Damiano Caruso of Italy. Pantano, Abasini, and Geschke dropped out of the front group leaving only Kwiatkowski and Russian champion Pavel Kochetkov up front, while Colombia’s Sergio Henao and Estonia’s Rein Taramae bridged up to the three chasers.

With 47km left Kwiatkowski dropped Kochetkov, but the Pole was soon reeled in himself. Then, with 200km ridden, Nibali and his Italian compatriot Fabio Aru launched a joint attack and several riders caught the front five, making for a 10-man group at the head of affairs. The leaders sustained a healthy advantage as they flew down a technical descent — which saw Australia’s Richie Porte crash out of the race — to start the final lap of the two-climb Vista Chinesa circuit.

On the final climb, Nibali fired off the front in a burst with only Majka and Henao able to follow. Van Avermaet looked to be in danger of coming unhinged from the back of the chasers as the riders went up and over the final climb, but the ensuing descent turned the race on its head.

As the likes of Joaquím Rodríguez (Spain) and Louis Meintjes (Spain) latched on to the chasing group, Nibali and Henao both crashed out front on the same descent that felled Porte on the prior lap. That left Majka riding alone to the finish line. His gold medal chances still looked strong even into the final 10km as the chase group hesitated to work together, but then Van Avermaet and Fuglsang jumped clear in an attempt to bridge the gap.

“When I saw the crash I was confused about how many riders were still up the road,” said Van Avermaet.

“I was working with Fuglsang, and we saw Majka. We knew it was possible. I knew I had to hang on.”

Hang on he did. Van Avermaet and Fuglsang gradually reeled in Majka, making the catch with just over a kilometer to go, allowing the Belgian to seal the deal with his speedy finish. Fuglsang was unable to match his turn of speed at the line, while a cramping Majka didn’t even attempt to sprint, settling for bronze.

Van Avermaet’s gold-medal ride marks Belgium’s first Olympic road race win since 1952.

Olympic men’s road race results