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.”

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.