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.”

Ferdy Kuebler, 1950 Tour de France champion, dies at 97

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LONDON — Ferdy Kuebler, who came back from injury and the interruption of World War II to win the 1950 Tour de France, has died. He was 97.

The Swiss won an epic battle with French rider Louison Bobet in the 1950 race, and became world champion the following year.

Andre Haefliger, the chief reporter at Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte, said from Kuebler’s home in Switzerland on Friday that he could confirm the death on behalf of Kuebler’s widow, Christina. Kuebler died Thursday at a Zurich hospital. He had been suffering from a cold.

Switzerland’s national cycling association, Swiss Cycling, paid tribute to Kuebler and offered its condolences to his family. “We are taking leave of one of the greatest cycling legends of our time,” it wrote on its website.

For many, his biggest achievement was winning the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, then held on successive days, in both 1951 and 1952.

In an era of marathon races on poor roads, Kuebler also won the 1953 Bordeaux-to-Paris after 570 kilometers (356 miles) and more than 14 hours in the saddle.

Born July 24, 1919, into a poverty-stricken family near Zurich, Kuebler knew as a child that he wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Forced as a teenager to find work to support his family, he got a job delivering bread by bicycle.

“I had to climb the mountain up to four times a day. That was how I trained for my career. I told myself: one day you will be a cyclist,” Kuebler said in a 2003 television documentary.

Later, as a Zurich office worker, Kuebler cycled the 100-kilometer (63-mile) round trip from home.

World War II broke out as he was starting to make his name as a cyclist. Kuebler was drafted into the Swiss army.

“I lost five or six of my best years,” he said.

An accident in 1946 that hospitalized him for two months almost ended his postwar career.

He came back in 1947 and started his first Tour, aged 28. He won the first stage, becoming the first post-war wearer of the famed yellow jersey.

In 1950, third-placed Kuebler took over the race lead when Italy’s team of riders withdrew, accusing spectators of assaulting them.

He finished the 4,773 kilometers (2,983 miles) 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead of Belgium’s Stan Ockers, with Bobet third.

Kuebler chose not to race another Tour until 1954. He finished second, behind Bobet.

After retiring at age 38, Kuebler trained as a ski instructor and worked on the Swiss slopes for 25 winters. In summer he did publicity for the Tour de Suisse and traveled with the race as an official for 35 years.

Kuebler said there was never any other career for him except cycling.

“I always said if I came back to earth – which I hope will happen – I would be a cyclist again,” he said.

New Zealanders join Lance Armstrong in early morning ride

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Several hundred cyclists turned out Tuesday for an early morning ride with Lance Armstrong, who is in New Zealand to film a commercial for a local brewery.

Armstrong issued an invitation by social media to join him cycling around Auckland’s waterfront and a crowd estimated at up to 1,000 turned out.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2013 after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Armstrong told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he was glad to know he still has some support.

New Zealand’s Lion Breweries has confirmed it brought the 45-year-old Texan to New Zealand. In an internal staff email, the brewer said “we are using Lance to tell a cautionary tale called `The Consequence’, which depicts how much you stand to lose when you pursue success at all costs.”

“We wanted to highlight that actions have consequences and we couldn’t think of anyone better to demonstrate that than Lance,” the email said.

Armstrong arrived in Auckland on Sunday from Houston, telling reporters he is in New Zealand on business but has bought his bike and golf clubs.

He took part in a ride later that day with a small group including New Zealand Ironman triathlon champion Cameron Brown.