Milan - Belgian Greg van Avermaet warmed up for the upcoming classics season with a season-opening victory on the third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico on Friday after a thrilling uphill finish that handed him the overall leader's jersey.
Van Avermaet crossed the finish line half a bike length ahead of former Tour de France green jersey champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia, with Czech Zdenek Stybar - who won the Strade Bianche Italian semi-classic last week - finishing third after the 203km ride from Cascina to Arezzo.
One-day classics rivals Fabian Cancellara and Filippo Pozzato finished fourth and fifth respectively as Van Avermaet - a former winner of Paris-Tours - underlined his finishing form for the beginning of the classics season.
The 29-year-old Belgian, who rides for BMC, took the overall race lead from Adriano Malori to lead Sagan by two seconds in the general classification with Italian Malori dropping to third at 8 seconds adrift.
"I'm very happy to have won because I've had too many second places," said Van Avermaet at the finish line. "This was a perfect finish for me but the team did an excellent job to get me in position."
A five-man breakaway had formed early in the stage but their bid to make it all the way ended with 20km remaining as the Tinkoff-Saxo team of defending race champion Alberto Contador set a furious pace at the front of the peloton.
BMC puts numbers up near the front in the closing kilometres and when the peloton hit the punchy final ascent on the Via Ricasoli, Van Avermaet emerged from the pack and went on to keep his rivals at bay over the closing 200 metres.
This weekend, the spotlight is likely to shine on the real victory contenders when stage four takes the peloton over 218km from Arezzo to Castelraimondo via three climbs in the final 80 km, including the Crispiero, whose summit is just 6km from the finish line.
But the real decider for the overall title could be on stage five, a 194km trek beginning in Esanatoglia and culminating with a 16km hike to the summit of Monte Terminillo.
Contador this year will attempt to become the first cyclist since deceased Italian Marco Pantani to win the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in the same year and this weekend should indicate how far the Spaniard's preparations have progressed.
Results from the third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, a 203 km ride from Cascina to Arezzo on Friday:
Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC 4hr 58min 17sec, 2. Zdenek Stybar (CZE)
same time, 3. Peter Sagan (SVK) s.t., 4. Filippo Pozzato (ITA) s.t., 5.
Fabian Cancellara (SUI) s.t., 6. Simon Geschke (GER) s.t., 7. Paul
Mertens (GER) s.t., 8. Andriy Grivko (UKR) s.t., 9. Rigoberto Uran (COL)
s.t., 10. Wouter Poels (NED) s.t.
Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC 8hr 34min 31sec, 2. Peter Sagan (SVK) at
02s, 3. Adriano Malori (ITA) 8, 4. Fabian Cancellara (SUI) 9, 5.
Matthias Brandle (AUT) 10, 6. Ramunas Navardauskas (LTU) 13, 7. Steven
Cummings (GBR) 14, 8. Jonathan Castroviejo (ESP) 16, 9. Edvald Boasson
Hagen (NOR) s.t., 10. Andriy Grivko (UKR) 17