Siena, Italy (AFP) – France's Julian Alaphilippe won a tight uphill struggle to claim an "unbelievable" victory in the Strade Bianche (White Roads) one-day cycling race run over 184km through the rolling hills and white gravel roads of Tuscany on Saturday.
The 26-year-old, riding for Deceuninck-Quick-Step, pipped Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang of Astana by just two seconds on Siena's historic Piazza del Campo after 4hr 17min 14sec in the saddle.
Belgian Wout Van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma) crossed in third at 27sec, for the second successive year, in the race which begins and ends in Siena.
Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas suffered a puncture, with the Welsh rider finishing in 12th position 2min 41sec behind the winner, as home hope Vincenzo Nibali trailed in at 8min 57sec.
Earlier Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten returned from a broken knee to leave her rivals in the dust by winning the first of the 23-event women's World Tour series.
"It's unbelievable," said one day classics specialist Alaphilippe, competing for the first time in the Tuscan race.
"Strade Bianche was my first big goal of the season.
"I knew it was a race that suited me but I wasn't confident in winning until the last corner.
"I felt heavy legs in the finale and Jakob Fuglsang was fresher than me. I had to arrive with him at the bottom of the San Caterina."
In sunny conditions the French rider -- who won La Fleche Wallonne, the San Sebastian Classic and two stages of the Tour de France last year -- held off Fuglsang on the steep Santa Caterina climb in the heart of the old city of Siena, and into the Piazza del Campo.
The early breakaway riders had been caught with 35km to go with Alaphilippe among a group of 15, along with teammate Zdenek Stybar, Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet and last year's winner Tiesj Benoot.
Alaphilippe and Fuglsang shook off the group on the short but steep final three sectors which split the elite lead group that had formed on the longer earlier sectors.
Fuglsang attacked, but Alaphilippe responded on the narrow twisting streets in the final few hundred metres.
The Frenchman accelerated to overtake the Dane before the final bend and subsequent drop to the line in the Piazza.
Alaphilippe raised his arms in delight as he crossed for his fourth win of the season after two stages of the Vuelta San Juan in Argentina and one at the Tour of Colombia.
"I started pretty well in South America but I wanted to win here," said the French rider who is now among the favourites for next week's Tirreno-Adriatico stage race across Italy.
"A cycling season is not only about the Flèche Wallonne and the Tour de France for me. I needed something new to motivate me, and that was Strade Bianche."
Earlier, Van Vleuten, 36, last year's Giro d'Italia winner and a two-time world time-trial champion, crossed the line alone after the 136km women's race which also started and finished in Siena.
It was her first major race since breaking her knee at the world championships last September.
"This is one of the best victories in my career. I thought after breaking my knee at the World Championship that I wouldn't have enough time to get into the right form for winning Strade Bianche.
"But I worked very hard because this race was on my wish list. I managed to attack exactly where I had planned to."
Denmark's Annika Langvad was 37 seconds behind with Poland's Katarzyna Niewiadoma at 40sec.