Belgium's Greg Van Avermaet poses with his gold medal after winning the men's road cycling race in Rio de Janeiro on August 6, 2016Belgium's Greg Van Avermaet poses with his gold medal after winning the men's road cycling race in Rio de Janeiro on August 6, 2016 (AFP Photo/Adrian Dennis)
Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Greg Van Avermaet described winning Olympic gold as "the greatest feeling ever" after he beat the odds and dodged some high-speed crashes to win the men's road race on Saturday.
The 31-year-old Belgian cobbled classics specialist wasn't expected to end up on top, but he upset the climbers and punchers for a stunning victory.
On a course that was supposed to favour the likes of Tour de France champion Chris Froome, Giro d'italia winner Vincenzo Nibali or Spanish punchers Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, it was Van Avermaet who triumphed.
"It's the greatest feeling ever to get gold," he said after his gritty performance. "I'm a classics guy so I hold on well."
Van Avermaet is no stranger to tough, long-distance courses, but until this year he had been something of a nearly man.
He was second at the Tour of Flanders in 2014, third at Paris-Roubaix the following year and fifth in Milan-San Remo this March.
Those are all long, one-day classics of around 250km, but they don't have the kind of significant 9km climb that was tackled three times during the Olympic race.
"It was a stressful race with all the crashes. There was a lot of risk-taking," added Van Avermaet, who last month won a Tour stage and wore the coveted race leader's yellow jersey for three days.
Yet, the Belgian may not have been in a position to win had it not been for a crash involving Nibali and Colombian climber Sergio Henao on a fast descent 12km from the line.
- 'Brutal, brutal race' -
Nibali is known for his descending skills and he was putting the hammer down and testing fellow escapees Henao and Rafal Majka when he came a cropper.
The 2014 winner of the Tour, who broke a collarbone in the crash, was left devastated.
"Vincenzo was sitting on the kerb in silence. Words served no purpose, we looked at each other a moment but he was silent," said Italy coach Davide Cassani.
"We didn't say a word to each other, his morale was in tatters."
Cassani added: "We had ridden the perfect race, the lads were amazing but unfortunately a skid undid everything, it all went wrong."
Nibali's crash left Majka, a lightweight climber, out in front on his own and he didn't have the power to resist the charging Van Avermaet and Jakob Fuglsang.
Poland's Majka did not even contest the sprint finish and accepted coming third behind Denmark's Fuglsang.
"I knew I had a great sprint at the end. It's very special," added Van Avermaet after heading an unlikely podium.
The course took its toll on the peloton with numerous crashes, especially on the tricky bend where Nibali and Henao fell.
Australia's Richie Porte also went down there on the previous descent -- the Vista Chinesa climb was crested three times in total -- while Britain's Geraint Thomas came off a little further down on the final descent.
He also went to hospital but later tweeted that he was fine.
"Thanks for all the messages guys. Gutted to end like that, with it all the play for!!!" said the Welshman.
Neither Nibali nor Henao finished the race, while Porte is likely to miss next week's time-trial after suffering a suspected broken collarbone.
But Thomas got up to finish 11th just ahead of his compatriot Froome and Dan Martin of Ireland.
"It was the hardest day I've ever had in my life on a bike," said Martin.
"It was a brutal, brutal, strange old race."