Cavendish laments diminished chances for sprinters at Tour

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SAINT-LO, France — Not too long ago, a successful Tour de France for Mark Cavendish meant coming away with a handful of victories.

Not anymore. And not only because German rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel have taken over as cycling’s top sprinters.

“The sprint opportunities are less,” Cavendish said on Thursday, lamenting how Tour organizers have created more challenging routes in recent years with more hilly stages in the opening week, as opposed to the purely flat opening stages that the race once started with.

“In 2008, it was 18 Cat (category) 2, Cat 1 and HC (Hors Categorie, beyond category) climbs in the whole Tour de France. Last year, there was 18 in the last week. This year, there’s 28 Cat 2, Cat 1 and HC climbs,” Cavendish said. “It’s quite an increase.”

He won four stages in 2008, six in 2009, five each in 2010 and 2011, and three in 2012. But over the last three races, he has won a total of three stages, and just one last year.

While the first three stages this year – highlighted by Saturday’s scenic opening leg from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach – set up well for sprinters, the route gets hilly from the fourth day onward.

“It makes more people win, which is good for the sport but it definitely changes our approach,” Cavendish said. “You don’t go with a nine-man leadout team to the Tour de France anymore unless you’re happy with just a couple of stage wins.

“There’s a longer list of GC (general classification) contenders than there ever was. And the teams are built behind them. That makes it very difficult for the sprinters.”

The 31-year-old British rider, nicknamed the “Manx Missile,” joined South African team Dimension Data for this season after shoulder surgery in September. He withdrew during last year’s race with ruptured ligaments in his right shoulder.

Cavendish prepared for the Tour by opening his season in February, and has raced constantly to mixed results – winning one stage each in the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Croatia, and Tour of California. He finished second to Adam Blythe in the British championships last weekend.

“It’s been completely different. I used a lot of racing to build up my endurance,” Cavendish said. “I really don’t know how it’s going to be. It could be the best thing in the world. It could be the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

With 26 career stage wins in the Tour, Cavendish sits third on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx (34) and Bernard Hinault (28).

He’s aiming for early and late wins this year, especially on the concluding stage in Paris.

“The biggest stage in the world,” Cavendish said, “is the Champs-Elysees for a sprinter.”


Nibali wins Milan-San Remo classic with solo attack

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SAN REMO, Italy (AP) Vincenzo Nibali carried off a daring solo attack to perfection to win the Milan-San Remo classic on Saturday and add to his long list of major achievements in cycling.

The Italian accelerated away from the pack on the Poggio, the final climb of the 294-kilometer (183-mile) race, with 7 kilometers to go.

Nibali then showed off his downhill skills on the technical descent and narrowly held off a pack of chasing sprinters on the flat finish.

Nibali looked back only once, with 50 meters remaining, and realized he had time to raise his arms in celebration before crossing the line in a time of 7 hours, 18 minutes, 43 seconds.

“I saw I created a gap right away,” Nibali said. “When I looked back it was a special emotion. It’s a race I didn’t expect to win because I’m not (a sprinter).

Caleb Ewan of Australia crossed second and Arnaud Demare of France finished third, both with the same time as Nibali.

Nibali, who rides for the Bahrain Merida team, has also won all three Grand Tours: the Giro d’Italia – twice – the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta.

Always looking for the fastest lines, Nibali at one point came so close to the fences that he knocked a cell phone out of a fan’s hand.

“When I pull these things off sometimes even I don’t know how I’m able do it,” Nibali said.

Mark Cavendish, the British sprinting standout, slammed into road furniture with 10 kilometers to go and flipped over his bike onto the asphalt.

Kwiatkowski wins Tirreno-Adriatico, Dennis takes final stage

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SAN BENEDETTO DEL TRONTO, Italy (AP) Michal Kwiatkowski won the Tirreno-Adriatico cycling race Tuesday after an impressive time trial on the final stage, which was won by Rohan Dennis.

Kwiatkowski started the individual time trial with an advantage of three seconds over Damiano Caruso and he was quicker than the Italian rider at every time check.

The Polish cyclist eventually finished 24 seconds ahead of Caruso in the overall standings, with Geraint Thomas third, 32 seconds behind his Team Sky teammate.

“I don’t actually know the final result, just that I won, and that’s all that matters,” Kwiatkowski said. “It was very nervous. When I was warming up it started raining so I was scared something might go wrong.

“I had to go with lower tire pressure. It was tricky … I had to be careful but I had good feelings today and that’s why I could finish so well.”

Thomas lost 36 seconds to the leaders following a mechanical failure during the fourth stage of the seven-stage race.

Dennis was quickest on the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) individual time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto. The Australian, who also won the closing time trial last year, was four seconds faster than Jos van Emden and eight ahead of Jonathan Castroviejo.

“To be honest I was nervous about it,” Dennis said. “I was looking at the best times on the course and was thinking, `What do I need to aim for?”‘