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Updated: Sagan nips Guarnieri in De Panne opener

Liquigas reaps the rewards of an active day in first De Panne stage

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — After finishing second to Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday and fourth at Milan-San Remo one week earlier, Liquigas rider Peter Sagan returned to his winning ways in Oudenaarde, Belgium, Tuesday, clinching the field sprint at Three Days of De Panne.

In the final pedal strokes of a 201.6km stage from Middelkerke — which saw aggressive racing by Liquigas-Cannondale, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, GreenEdge, Astana and Vacansoleil-DCM — Sagan punched through the finish line first, just passing Astana’s Jacopo Guarnieri in a photo finish. Sagan’s teammate Fabio Sabatini finished third.

It was Sagan’s third victory of the season, after stage wins at Tour of Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico.

The peloton rolled out of Middelkerke at noon under brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures. One prominent rider absent was Omega Pharma’s Michal Kwiatkowski, third overall at De Panne in 2011, who was sidelined with a gastrointestinal virus. Others to skip the race were Robert Wagner (RadioShack-Nissan) and Jens Mouris (GreenEdge).

With 12 climbs ahead of the peloton, on a course that delivered two 57km circuits starting and finishing in Oudenaarde, it took nearly two hours and 100km before a breakaway was established. Breakaway attempts continually failed as the peloton hummed along, heading east, covering 49.6km in the first hour (30.8mph). The peloton didn’t arrive at the first climb, in Edelare, until 90km into the race.

The breakaway that finally stuck included Tosh Van der Sande (Lotto-Belisol), Steven Van Vooren (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) and Reiner Honig (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony); Ronan Van Zandbeek (Project 1t4i) and William Clarke (Champion System) soon bridged across, making it a five-man group that never enjoyed more than a two-minute advantage.

With around 70km remaining, Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) and Daniel Oss (Liquigas) attempted, unsuccessfully, to bridge across to the leaders. It would be the first of several instances in which Liquigas would animate the race.

Ten kilometers later the gap had come down to just 40 seconds, with the breakaway group down to four men after Clarke fell off the pace. Andy Cappelle (Accent Jobs-Willems Véranda’s) and Damien Gaudin (Europcar) bridged across a nearly one-minute gap to replace Clarke in the escape.

Inside the final 50km the real race action began. French national champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma) attacked on the Leberg, a 950-meter stretch that averages just 4.2 percent; that aggression drew out Oss and Sabatini from Liquigas, Leif Hoste (Accent Jobs-Willems Véranda’s), Simone Ponzi and Assan Bazayev (Astana), Sebastian Langeveld (GreenEdge), Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana) and Marcel Sieberg (Lotto-Belisol).

The two front groups briefly merged, but as the peloton angrily closed in, led by Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM), Oss attacked on the 936m paved Berendries climb, which tops out with a 12.3-percent gradient.

A four-man group chased after Oss, containing Westra, Guarnieri, Langeveld and Ben Hermans (RadioShack-Nissan). Once together, the five-man group opened up a 30-second gap with just 29km to go. Omega Pharma’s Niki Terpstra led the chase, with Chavanel and Sagan closely following his wheel.

Fifteen kilometers later, once the lead had been halved, GreenEdge rider Svein Tuft tried his hand, but Sagan quickly smothered the move; Chavanel launched a counterattack that Sagan also nullified.

On the final climb, the 1km paved Kortekeer just 9km from the finish in Oudenaarde, Muravyev attacked his breakaway companions, quickly opening an 18-second gap. From the peloton Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil) attempted to do the same, drawing the attention of Westra, Hoste and Sagan. Once again, Omega Pharma missed the move, and was forced to chase alongside GreenEdge. The pace over the Kortekeer shed several top sprinters, including André Greipel (Lotto) and Francesco Chicchi (Omega Pharma).

After 3km off the front of the peloton, the Devolder group was caught, and with 5km to go, Muravyev was finally reeled in, setting up a field sprint, with American Ted King ramping up the pace for Liquigas at the front of the pack.

Inside the final kilometer Sagan and Guarnieri tangled repeatedly, and the Italian’s frustrations were evidenced as he pounded on his handlebar after Sagan came around first Sabatini and then Guarnieri to take a photo-finish victory.

“Astana was leading out — they wanted to do the sprint,” Sagan said. “But we were there with Oss and Sabanti. I told Fabio we’d pull for him, I told him to stay behind. But he said he didn’t know if he was feeling 100 percent. I decided to do the sprint, but it was close, I didn’t have time to celebrate.”

With the win Sagan took a 10-second time bonus and the race leader’s jersey. In all, six Liquigas riders made the front group of 50 — Sagan, Sabatini, Maciej Bodnar, Oss, King and Alan Marangoni.

“Oss is a great teammate, he was away in the escape and forced the others to work,” Sagan said. “They caught his group, so we came up with ‘Plan B.’”

Race results >>