Van Garderen leads 5-man US contingent at Tour de France

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Tejay van Garderen was third overall in the Tour de France a year ago, just a handful of stages between him and a podium place in Paris, when he pulled to the side of the road and climbed into his team car.

A respiratory infection he had been fighting for days had forced him out of the race.

It was a bitter disappointment for van Garderen, who has twice finished fifth in cycling’s marquee race, but also for American fans waiting for someone to step into the void left by Lance Armstrong.

Perhaps this is the year that finally happens.

Van Garderen will join four other Americans on the start line Saturday in Mont-Saint-Michel, all of them with enough ability to stir things up. In fact, van Garderen and Richie Porte were picked as co-leaders of the BMC Racing Team, which means the 27-year-old from Tacoma, Washington, will have plenty of support.

“I’ve already raced the Tour de France a couple of times with most of these guys, so I couldn’t be happier to line up with them once again,” van Garderen said. “I’m in great shape. I’m really motivated.”

Van Garderen withdrew his name from consideration for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, citing concerns about the Zika virus, with his wife due to give birth in October. That means the Tour is his sole priority.

As if there was any doubt, given the way last year shook out.

He’ll be joined at the Tour by teammate Brent Bookwalter, who will be part of the two-man U.S. squad in Rio. Cannondale Pro Cycling also has two Americans in Lawson Craddock and Alex Howes, despite Andrew Talansky skipping the race because of family concerns and a chronic sinus infection. Peter Stetina rounds out the American contingent for Trek-Segafredo. Stetina, who suffered career-threatening injuries in a crash at Pais-Vasco last year, may have the best feel-good story in the peloton.

The five American riders are two more than a year ago, when the fewest in nearly two decades made it to the start, but still represent a modest total – there were 10 just five years ago.

For various reasons, several of America’s brightest stars are joining Talansky on the sideline.

Taylor Phinney was not part of BMC’s roster, his sights set instead on the Rio Olympics, where he has a chance to medal in the time trial. Tyler Farrar, a stage winner in 2011, was passed over by his Dimension Data team, and Ben King was skipped over by Cannondale despite his strong performance in California.

Still, those on the start list for the Tour have enough ability to make good on their aspirations.

Van Garderen is a legitimate podium threat, especially after his recent stage win in the Tour de Suisse. Bookwalter has a puncher’s chance to win from a breakaway. Stetina will focus on helping Dutch teammate Bauke Mollema in the hills but proved at the Tour of California that he can surprise on any uphill stage.

Craddock, a bright-eyed Texan, and Howes, who like Stetina grew up in the cycling hotbed near Boulder, Colorado, are intriguing youngsters who believe they have something to prove.

“With it being my first Tour it’s hard to place certain expectations on myself,” Craddock said. “Just lining up on the start line of the Tour is a dream come true, so if I were able to wear a jersey there, then I think my mind would just explode. That being said, I’m a born and bred bike racer, and I line up to every race I do with dreams of winning. I’m not just going to the Tour to be pack fodder.”

Not just pack fodder? Sure doesn’t sound like a Tour rookie.

Jonathan Vaughters, who founded the U.S.-based Cannondale team, said French veteran Pierre Rolland will be the pivot-point of his squad. But he didn’t dismiss the 24-year-old Craddock or the 28-year-old Howes from trying to animate the race, especially given their charmingly cavalier attitudes.

“The anticipation of this race is huge,” Craddock said. “I imagine the few days leading up to the start I’ll have a few more nerves than normal, but at the end of the day, it’s just another bike race. The neutral flag goes down on the first stage, I’m sure those nerves will be replaced with pure adrenaline.”

Quintana keeps lead but Dumoulin remains pick to win Giro

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ASIAGO, Italy — Nairo Quintana held on to the pink jersey in the penultimate stage of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday but likely didn’t pick up enough seconds on his most dangerous rival, Tom Dumoulin, to claim overall victory.

Thibaut Pinot of France won the 20th stage in a sprint finish ahead of Ilnur Zakarin of Russia and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali.

Entering Sunday’s concluding time trial, Quintana leads Nibali by 39 seconds with Pinot third, 43 seconds back.

Dumoulin dropped from second to fourth, 53 seconds back, although he still remains the favorite considering his time trialing skills.

The 100th Giro ends on Sunday with a flat 29.3-kilometer (18-mile) individual time trial from Monza’s Formula One race track to Milan.

Dumoulin already dominated the race’s first time trial in Stage 10.

Quintana reclaims pink jersey with 2 stages to go in Giro

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PIANCAVALLO, Italy — Nairo Quintana reclaimed the pink jersey from Tom Dumoulin with two stages to go in the Giro d’Italia on Friday, setting up what could be a tense finale in Milan on Sunday.

Dumoulin couldn’t keep up with his main rivals in the final uphill finish of the three-week race and trails Quintana, the 2014 winner from Colombia, by 38 seconds.

Two-time winner Vincenzo Nibali is third overall, 43 seconds behind Quintana.

With Thibaut Pinot of France fourth overall, 53 seconds back, the top four are grouped within less than a minute.

“It’s pretty complicated. We have to adapt the strategy day-by-day,” Quintana said.

Spanish rider Mikel Landa won the 19th stage in a breakaway, finally tasting victory after two second-place finishes and one third-place result.

Landa required nearly five hours to complete the 191-kilometer (119-mile) route from San Candido to Piancavallo. He finished nearly two minutes ahead of Rui Costa, with Stage 17 winner Pierre Rolland crossing third.

On Thursday, Dumoulin criticized the tactics of Quintana and Nibali, saying they were merely racing to make him lose – remarks that earned a sharp rebuke from Nibali.

Before Friday’s stage, Dumoulin apologized to Nibali and the pair shook hands.

If anything, Dumoulin’s comments appeared to have motivated Quintana and Nibali, who temporarily dropped Dumoulin on a downhill section midway through Friday’s stage.

While the Dutchman caught up on the ensuing Sella Chianzutan climb, he didn’t have the legs to keep up on the 15.4-kilometer climb to Piancavallo, which began at an average gradient of nearly 10 percent.

“I had bad legs from the start and I made a rookie mistake at the beginning, sitting at the back of the bunch on the downhill,” Dumoulin said.

“In the final I tried to limit my losses and I did that very well. My team saved me a couple of times, so I have to thank them. Otherwise it would have been a much worse day. Bad legs today, but I hope they’ll be better tomorrow.”

Quintana wore pink for one day after winning Stage 9. Dumoulin then took control by dominating a time trial in Stage 10 and had led ever since.

Quintana has also finished on the Tour de France podium three times.

The penultimate stage on Saturday is the last mountainous leg, a 190-kilometer (118-mile) route from Pordenone to Asiago featuring two first-category climbs – a long 24-kilometer ascent to Monte Grappa and a shorter but steeper 14-kilometer rise to Foza.

The 100th Giro ends on Sunday with an individual time trial from Monza to Milan.

“Tomorrow there will be another important stage and then I’ll give it all in the time trial,” Quintana said.