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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

2019 Tour will honor 1st victory of 5-time champion Merckx

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BRUSSELS (AP) The start of the 2019 Tour de France will be all about honoring Eddy Merckx in his hometown of Brussels.

Merckx, known as “The Cannibal” for his ferocious taste for victory, won the first of his five Tours in 1969. Half a century later, the Belgian great still sees it as one of the major accomplishments for a cyclist generally considered to be the greatest ever.

“I wore the yellow jersey 96 times. It is the best memory of my career. It still gives me goosebumps,” Merckx said during Tuesday’s presentation of the Grand Depart – the opening weekend of the three-week Tour.

Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages and is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times. French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are the others.

Tour organizers said it will be the second time the race will set off from the Belgian capital, which hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958.

The 2019 race will also mark 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.

When it comes to the first two stages on July 6-7, the iconic Wall of Geraardsbergen climb should take center stage.

The 192-kilometer (119-mile) first stage of the Tour will have the Wall, for decades the toughest climb in the Ronde of Flanders classic. The Wall will come early but the stage, which makes a big loop south of Brussels, is still set up for a sprint finish close to the royal palace.

It will also have its stretch of famed Flemish cobblestones and will pass through the hometown of soccer player Eden Hazard.

The second stage will be a 28-kilometer team time trial through the Belgian capital along its wide-open boulevards. The riders will also pass by St. Pieters-Woluwe in suburban Brussels, where Merckx lived as a child and where he got to pull on his first yellow jersey.

From Brussels, it is an easy trek south into nearby France for the rest of the race.

Peter Sagan wins prelude to Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Three-time world road racing champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia made an outstanding start to the 2018 cycling season Sunday when he won the People’s Choice Classic, a prelude to the first World Tour event of the season, the Tour Down Under.

Sagan beat star sprinters Andre Greipel of Germany and Caleb Ewan of Australia in a bunch sprint to win the 50.6 kilometer (31.4 mile) race over 22 laps of a street course in central Adelaide.

The win means Sagan will wear the tour leader’s ocher jersey in the first stage of the six stage Tour Down Under on Tuesday. Sunday’s race does not count toward general classification.

Ewan won the race in each of the past two years and Greipel is the only three-time winner. The 132-strong field that lined up for the race Sunday included seven former winners.