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Nibali headlines Giro amid mechanical doping concerns

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ROME (AP) Too many parties and too many extra pounds.

Vincenzo Nibali knows exactly why he struggled so much last year, and this year the Sicilian is determined to return to cycling’s pinnacle when he lines up as the main attraction in the Giro d’Italia, which begins Friday in the Netherlands.

Nibali’s 2014 Tour de France title made him the sixth rider to win all three of cycling’s Grand Tours – the others being Jacques Anquetil, Alberto Contador, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx.

That’s when the trouble began.

“At this time a year ago I was struggling,” Nibali said. “As the veterans say, `You make the rider in the winter.’ And I didn’t do the right things in winter. There were too many parties after the Tour, too much carelessness and too many extra kilos. Already at the opening training camps I realized that my teammates were ahead of me.”

Nibali finished a distant fourth in last year’s Tour, then was disqualified from the Spanish Vuelta for holding on to his team car.

Now he’s returning to the Giro for the first time since winning the Italian race in 2013. Depending on how the Giro goes, he may also enter the Tour, perhaps as a support rider for Astana teammate Fabio Aru.

“I like the Giro this year because it’s similar to the 2013 edition,” Nibali said. “There are some nervous stages at the start but of course everything will be decided at the end in the big mountains.”

Here are some things to know about this year’s Giro:

THE ROUTE

The 99th edition of the race opens with three stages in the Netherlands and a rare Friday start.

The opening leg is a flat 9.8-kilometer (6-mile) individual time trial in Apeldoorn followed by two sprint stages before an early rest day.

The real action should start upon the return to Italy in Stage 4, a hilly leg beginning in the southern city of Catanzaro.

The first of six mountain finishes comes on Stage 6 from Ponte to Roccaraso in the central Apennines.

The second individual time trial in Stage 9 features a hilly 40-kilometer (25-mile) route from Radda to Greve in Chianti – which could have a big impact on the general classification.

Another key stage is the 14th leg, which has six classified climbs – including the Passo Pordoi, the Passo Sella and the Passo Giau – on the 210-kilometer (131-mile) route through the Dolomites from Alpago to Corvara. After the so-called queen stage, there are two other legs which have been given the maximum difficulty rating of five stars – the 19th and the 20th.

The race ends in Turin on May 29.

VALVERDE’S DEBUT

At 36, Alejandro Valverde is making his Giro debut and the Spaniard is expected to be Nibali’s top challenger for the overall title.

In 2009, Valverde was banned for two years by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) for his involvement in the Operation Puerto blood-doping scandal. CONI took samples from Valverde during a rest day in Italy during the 2008 Tour and matched them to blood sacks confiscated in Spain.

While Valverde contested CONI’s jurisdiction in the case, the ban was upheld.

“The past remains in the past,” Valverde said. “I don’t have anything against Italy or Italians.”

After winning the Spanish Vuelta in 2009, Valverde finished third in last year’s Tour.

Other overall favorites include Mikel Landa, Tom Dumoulin, Rigoberto Uran and Esteban Chaves.

The top sprinters include Marcel Kittel, Arnaud Damare and Andre Greipel.

MECHANICAL DOPING

Giro director Mauro Vegni is taking UCI president Brian Cookson’s word that cycling’s governing body has the definitive test for mechanical doping.

The UCI maintains that its use of a tablet device producing magnetic resistance scans is more effective than “flawed” heat-seeking tests, which it says are only effective if bikes are filmed up close by motorcycles on the road.

Rumors of riders using motors have circulated for several years, and were fueled by a French broadcaster last month using thermal imagery.

“President Cookson assured us that a lot of attention will be paid to this issue,” Vegni said. “We had offered to help buy thermal-imagery equipment. … But I trust (the tablets).”

CHIANTI CLASSICO

Wine lovers will appreciate Stage 9, a time trial dedicated to Chianti Classico.

The May 15 leg features a hilly 40.5-kilometer (25-mile) route from Radda to Greve in Chianti – the heart of the Tuscan red wine-making region.

The route will also pass through Castellina in Chianti, Madonna di Pietracupa, Sicelle, Panzano in Chianti before ending in Greve’s triangular Piazza Matteotti.

Wine was also the theme for a time trial in last year’s race from Barbaresco to Barolo.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

Brazilian cycling team faces 2nd ban for persistent doping

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AIGLE, Switzerland (AP) Brazilian team Soul Brasil Pro Cycling faces another ban from racing after two more riders were implicated in doping.

The International Cycling Union says the team will be judged by its disciplinary panel which can impose bans of up to one year.

Cycling rules allow teams to be suspended if two riders are caught doping in a one-year period.

In December, the team’s riders were suspended for 55 days after three cases involving the banned blood booster CERA since July. They included Kleber Ramos of Brazil, who competed in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic road race.

The UCI says the latest cases involve biological passport results for Alex Correia Diniz, who is provisionally suspended, and an allegation against Otavio Bulgarelli of tampering with a doping sample.

Van Avermaet wins Gent-Wevelgem for two victories in three days

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GENT, Belgium (AP) Olympic road champion Greg Van Avermaet won his second race in three days Sunday, beating fellow Belgian Jens Keukeleire in a two-man sprint finish to take the Gent-Wevelgem classic.

World champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia, who won last year’s race, finished third.

The 249-kilometer (154.7-mile) race through Belgium included two ascents of the steep, cobbled Kemmelberg hill, one of the iconic climbs of the spring classics season.

Last year’s race was overshadowed by the death of Belgian rider Antoine Demoitie after a fall.

Sagan fell Friday in the E3 Harelbeke, which Van Avermaet also won to add to his victory last month in Het Nieuwsblad.