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Van Avermaet wins Het Nieuwsblad

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GENT, Belgium — Olympic road champion Greg Van Avermaet edged a three-man sprint to claim a second consecutive victory in the Het Nieuwsblad, which marks the start of the Spring classics.

For the second year in a row, the Belgian rider was faster than world champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia at the finish line on Saturday.

Another Belgian, Sep Vanmarcke, who took the initiative in the final sprint about 200 meters out, completed the podium.

“It’s an amazing feeling. Last year, my season started here with a big victory and now it’s the same this year,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s nice to come home and to win the first race on home ground.”

The grueling race, which features cobble sections and punishing short climbs, was marred by a big pile-up about 62 kilometers (38.5 miles) from the finish. Two pre-race favorites, veteran Tom Boonen and Alexander Kristoff, fell on the narrow cobbled section. Both were able to resume racing but could not compete for the win, and Boonen ultimately abandoned because of pain in his knee.

With half the peloton trapped behind, Trek-Segafredo riders accelerated on the Taaienberg climb, a move that stretched the leading pack. Sagan attacked again in the Wolvenberg and the group of early breakaway riders was reined in soon after.

“It was really nice to come with three guys to the finish and wonderful that I could finish it off,” Van Avermaet said. “I had confidence from last year that I could win in a sprint to this finish.”

World champ Peter Sagan to race in Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) Three-time world road race champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia has confirmed he will compete in the Tour Down Under in January, the opening World Tour event of the season.

Sagan won the world title last month for the third straight year, becoming the first cyclist to do so. He competed in the Tour Down Under for the first time last year, finishing second on three stages behind Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan.

Sagan, who rides for the BORA-hansgrohe team, said the six-stage Tour Down Under is “the perfect start to the UCI World Tour season each year … a challenging and tough course, warm weather and the passionate fans that cheer for us day in day out no matter what.”

Former Olympic cycling champ fired after positive drug test

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) Former Olympic road cycling champion Samuel Sanchez, who returned a positive doping test in August, had his B-sample confirmed Wednesday and was promptly fired by the BMC Racing Team.

Sanchez’s out-of-competition test revealed growth hormone-releasing peptide 2, or GHRP-2, a drug that increases a body’s level of growth hormone. Several cyclists have tested positive for the drug, among them Italian rider Stefano Pirazzi, who was given a four-year ban earlier this week.

The U.S.-based BMC Team said in a statement Wednesday that it was adhering to its zero-tolerance policy toward doping by terminating the Spaniard’s contract “with immediate effect.”

The 39-year-old Sanchez, who had been provisionally suspended, won gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.