OLYMPIC CHAMPION Greg Van Avermaet completed an emotional victory in a compelling Tour de Yorkshire that set new standards for the event.
In blazing temperatures reminiscent of Rio two years ago, Van Avermaet finished second on the gruelling fourth and final stage from Halifax’s Piece Hall to the Headrow in Leeds.
This was enough to give him overall victory by nine seconds from Edu Prades Reverter, with defending champion Serge Pauwels in third, another five seconds adrift.
The stage went to Frenchman Stephane Rossetto, who completed a stunning solo victory, arguably the most impressive in the race’s history, after breaking away on the feared Park Rash climb, 110 km from the finish.
Van Avermaet, 32, took home the trophy despite not winning a stage as he justified his pre-race status as favourite.
The Belgian star finished 29th on stage one into Doncaster, when the peloton were outfoxed by Yorkshire rider Harry Tanfield in a five-man breakaway.
Van Avermaet made up for that disappointment by moving into overall contention with a strong ride on Ilkley’s Cow and Calf when he was second behind Magnus Cort Nielsen.
Eighth place in Saturday’s bunch sprint on Scarborough seafront sent him into the final day as one of the favourites and his BMC team controlled the race behind the lone winner.
Cort Nielsen cracked on the last of the day’s six categorised climbs, Cote de Otley Chevin, 25kms from the finish and from then on the race was Van Avermaet’s to lose.
His fast finish capped an impressive performance and the two-time Tour de France stage winner described overall victory as “something special”.
I can go to the funeral with something in my hands, I think that is important for the family. He was a great man who supported the team for many years and he was a fan of Yorkshire. He enjoyed this area here so I think he is happy I won this race.Greg Van Avermaet
He said: “The Tour de Yorkshire has big crowds, it is a nice race. It is behind the Classics and the Olympics, but it is always nice to win the GC [general classification].
“It is not easy for me, but I think it is a race that really fits me. I like to come here, it is the kind of climbs I am really good at.
“First of all I tried to win stages here. That was not possible, but I think it is good I was second on the climb the second day.
“It was really a team effort, I just had to finish it off.”
Van Avermaet pledged to celebrate in Leeds last night with a “burger, fries and a beer”, but was facing more sombre duties today.
Businessman Andy Rihs, who owned the BMC team, died last month and Van Avermaet will attend his funeral in Zurich today.
He wore a black armband during the race and said it was “really important” for the team to pay tribute.
“I feel a bit responsible to give him something back,” said the race victor. “I can go to the funeral with something in my hands, I think that is important for the family. He was a great man who supported the team for many years and he was a fan of Yorkshire. He enjoyed this area here so I think he is happy I won this race.
“We are pretty proud we did something.”
Reflecting on this year’s Tour, Van Avermaet said: “It has been nice on television and nice for the spectators.
“They have a lot of options here and with four stages they can suit almost everybody.
“I think the balance is good, the organisation did a really good job to makes these stages with something for everybody.”
Though Van Avermaet claimed the overall prize, Rossetto, of the Cofidis team, stole the hearts of a massive crowd in Leeds city centre.
He began the day in a lowly 81st place, almost 10 minutes behind overall leader Cort Nielsen, but had just enough left in his legs at the end of the stage to claim what he said was the best win of his career. With the breakaway rider no threat in the general classification, the contenders for overall victory were content to allow Rossetto his dash for glory, though they had cut the gap to just 34 seconds by the time Rossetto crossed the line.
Speaking through an interpreter he said: “I realised in the last five kilometres I had won. It is the most beautiful win of my professional career. This race has more and more value.
“It has history now and it has amazing crowds. There are so many spectators it is like being on the Tour de France.
“To win that way, breaking away, is my style of riding.
“I often try to do it, but it rarely pays off, I rarely win, so to win that way is even more enjoyable.”
Van Avermaet was a high-profile winner of a race that is growing in stature every year.
He was also the points winner and his BMC squad sealed the team classification.
Ian Bibby took third on the final stage to finish as the best British rider in sixth, 23 seconds adrift. Yorkshire’s Tanfield, winner of the opening stage on Thursday, finished alone and outside yesterday’s time limit, more than 36 minutes down on the day’s winner.
Tour de France legend Mark Cavendish was among those who did not complete the course.
Sir Gary Verity, of Welcome to Yorkshire, felt the addition of an extra day for the men and doubling the women’s race to two stages took the event to a “new level”.
“It has been our most successful race so far without a shadow of a doubt,” said Verity.
“The race has come of age and we have seen huge crowds all the way around.
“We have had much better racing, even on top of some very good racing before.
“We would never have got the likes of Mark Cavendish here with just one sprint.
“Having two sprint finishes means we can attract the best sprinters in the world, as well as the climbers and attackers.”
Verity added: “The quality of the racing has been outstanding for the women and the men.
“It has been a good race for both sexes, which is really important for us.
“We had an iconic finish at the top of Ilkley Moor on Friday and another one of the North Bay in Scarborough on Saturday,” he added.
“We had an iconic start in Halifax at the Piece Hall and by finishing on the Headrow, when the Grand Depart began, the journey has come full circle.
“What a four years.”
Rather than dropping off, interest in the race is growing both among riders and spectators.
“It is unbelievable,” said Verity.
“And it can’t just be people from Yorkshire, people are coming from all round.
“It is staggering.”