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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

Little boy goes wild watching dad in Tour de France

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Bauke Mollema wasn’t the only one putting on a show at the Tour de France.

Mollema received plenty of support back home as his son went absolutely crazy watching his “papa” push to victory in Stage 15. As it is with siblings, Mollema’s oldest son, Julian, was forced to share the spot light as Thomas got emotional watching his dad finally earn a coveted stage win.

Amidst the blood, sweat and tears that have made up the 2017 Tour de France, Mollema’s adorable 2-year-old son, Thomas gave the internet something to smile about.

The Tour de France has “always been the most important race for [Mollema]” and his dreams came true when he had an impressive break away to solidify the first stage win of his career.

Clearly, Mollema was not the only one excited for his first victory.

 

Cavendish involved in nasty crash after elbow from Sagan

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VITTEL, France (AP) A nasty crash involving Mark Cavendish marred Tuesday’s fourth stage of the Tour de France, which was won by France’s Arnaud Demare in a chaotic sprint finish.

Replays appeared to show world champion Peter Sagan elbowing Cavendish, who was squeezed against the barriers to his right, out of the way. Cavendish slammed into the barriers and two other riders plowed over the British sprint specialist, a winner of 30 Tour stages.

Sagan, who crossed the line second, was later given a 30-second penalty that relegated him to 115th place on the stage. As a result, he dropped from second place in the overall standings to 15th.

“I get on with Peter well, but I don’t get … if he came across is one thing, but the elbow. I’m not a fan of him putting his elbow in me like that,” Cavendish said.

“A crash is a crash, I’d just like to know about the elbow, really,” Cavendish added. “I’d just like to speak to him about it.”

After the crash, Sagan went over to see how Cavendish was and patted him on the back, while the British rider showed him his wounds.

The Slovak said later he had apologized to Cavendish.

“It’s not nice to crash like that,” Sagan said.

“It’s the sprint. I just didn’t know that Mark is behind me, he’s coming from the right side,” Sagan added. “Mark was coming pretty fast from the back and after I just didn’t have time to react, to go left, and he just came (into) me and after into the fence.”

A medical team quickly ran out to treat Cavendish, jogging into the oncoming stream of riders to reach him.

When Cavendish was finally helped to his feet, his jersey was badly torn and blood was streaking down his side. Cavendish rode in with a teammate after treatment, gingerly holding his right arm close to his body, with his right hand in a bandage.

It’s already been a difficult year for Cavendish, who came down with mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus in April.

Demare’s sprint victory ended a long wait for the home fans, with the previous French victory in a bunch sprint at the Tour being won by Jimmy Casper in Stage 1 in Strasbourg in 2006.

“It’s extraordinary, it’s marvelous,” said Demare, the French champion who finished second to Marcel Kittel in the mass sprint that concluded Stage 2.

There was another crash earlier that delayed Tour leader Geraint Thomas, but the Welshman retained the yellow jersey since it happened in the neutral zone near the stage finish.

Thomas leads Sky teammate and three-time champion Chris Froome by 12 seconds, with third-place Michael Matthews of Australia also 12 seconds back. Sagan is now 43 seconds adrift.

Thomas scraped his knee but said it was OK.

“I hit the deck but I’m fine,” Thomas said.

Demare clocked nearly five hours over the largely flat 207.5-kilometer (129-mile) route, which started and finished in two spa towns, Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg and Vittel in France.

“We’ve been working with Arnaud for a long time on sprints,” said Marc Madiot, manager of Demare’s FDJ team. “Winning in the Tour is the best.”

After Sagan’s penalty, Alexander Kristoff moved up to second place in the stage, with Andre Greipel in third.

After starting in Mondorf, the hometown of 2010 Tour winner Andy Schleck, one of the first towns along the route was Schengen, where an agreement was signed in 1985 that enabled passport-free travel in mainland Europe.

Then it was a long, fairly straight slog through fields of grain, passing near the medieval city of Nancy into Vittel, home of the official mineral water supplier for the Tour.

It was the race’s third consecutive stage of more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) and when Guillaume van Keirsbulck, a Belgian with the Wanty team, attacked from the starting gun there was no reaction from the pack.

Van Keirsbulck quickly built a lead of more than seven minutes before being caught with less than 17 kilometers to go.

“A really hard day,” Van Keirsbulck said. “It’s not easy to stay in the front.”

Stage 5 on Wednesday concludes with the first serious climb of the Tour. The 160.5-kilometer (100-mile) leg begins in Vittel and winds its way to La Planche Des Belles Filles with a short but steep finishing ascent that features a leg-breaking 20-percent gradient in the final meters. All of the overall favorites should swing into action.