Kittel swerves out of the way and Cavendish gets win No. 4

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VILLARS-LES-DOMBES, France (AP) Mark Cavendish approached the finish line with so much speed that German rival Marcel Kittel had to swerve out of the way.

The “Manx Missile” easily sprinted to his fourth stage victory in the Tour de France on Saturday.

Finishing in the main pack during the 14th stage, Chris Froome had little trouble holding onto the yellow jersey.

It was Cavendish’s 30th career win in the Tour, putting him within four of Eddy Merckx’s record. The British sprinter held up four fingers after crossing the line.

Kittel threw up his arm in protest when Cavendish passed him.

“Kittel had already lost and stopped his effort. He had lost his focus. Maybe Cavendish swerved a bit, but it’s nothing,” retired sprinter Laurent Jalabert said.

Alexander Kristoff, a Norwegian with Katusha, crossed second, and world champion Peter Sagan was third.

Kittel came fifth.

“Cavendish is just faster right now,” Kristoff said.

The peloton stopped for a minute of silence at the start of the stage in honor of the 84 victims of the truck attack in Nice. Froome, French champion Arthur Vichot, and other leaders of the Tour took their helmets off and stood still at the start line.

It was the first of three days of national mourning in France, and fans waved the country’s flag all along the 208.5-kilometer (130-mile) route from Montelimar to the bird sanctuary of Parc des Oiseaux in Villars-Les-Dombes near Lyon.

Cavendish’s personal record for wins in one Tour was six in 2009. His performance in this race has come as somewhat of a surprise, considering that he has been slowed by injuries in recent seasons.

But Cavendish seems rejuvenated after joining the South African squad Team Dimension Data for this season.

Froome remained 1:47 ahead of second-place Bauke Mollema and 2:45 in front of third-place Adam Yates in the overall standings.

Four riders – Martin Elmiger of Switzerland, Alex Howes of the United States, Jeremy Roy of France, and Cesare Benedetti of Italy – formed an early breakaway and opened up an advantage of 4 1/2 minutes before falling apart in the final kilometers.

Known as a “transfer stage” because it was a lengthy leg that moved the peloton from one region to another to set up the ensuing mountain tests, the route took riders by fields of grain and sunflowers amid winds exceeding 35 kph (22 mph).

The stage started 15 minutes early because of concerns over a strong headwind and concluded with a three-kilometer straight directly into the wind.

Matti Breschel, a Danish rider with Cannondale, crashed midway through the stage, and was reported to have broken his collarbone.

The Tour enters the Alps on Sunday, a 160-kilometer (99-mile) leg from Bourg-en-Bresse to Culoz featuring six climbs, including the beyond-category Grand Colombier.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/asdampf

2019 Tour will honor 1st victory of 5-time champion Merckx

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BRUSSELS (AP) The start of the 2019 Tour de France will be all about honoring Eddy Merckx in his hometown of Brussels.

Merckx, known as “The Cannibal” for his ferocious taste for victory, won the first of his five Tours in 1969. Half a century later, the Belgian great still sees it as one of the major accomplishments for a cyclist generally considered to be the greatest ever.

“I wore the yellow jersey 96 times. It is the best memory of my career. It still gives me goosebumps,” Merckx said during Tuesday’s presentation of the Grand Depart – the opening weekend of the three-week Tour.

Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages and is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times. French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are the others.

Tour organizers said it will be the second time the race will set off from the Belgian capital, which hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958.

The 2019 race will also mark 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.

When it comes to the first two stages on July 6-7, the iconic Wall of Geraardsbergen climb should take center stage.

The 192-kilometer (119-mile) first stage of the Tour will have the Wall, for decades the toughest climb in the Ronde of Flanders classic. The Wall will come early but the stage, which makes a big loop south of Brussels, is still set up for a sprint finish close to the royal palace.

It will also have its stretch of famed Flemish cobblestones and will pass through the hometown of soccer player Eden Hazard.

The second stage will be a 28-kilometer team time trial through the Belgian capital along its wide-open boulevards. The riders will also pass by St. Pieters-Woluwe in suburban Brussels, where Merckx lived as a child and where he got to pull on his first yellow jersey.

From Brussels, it is an easy trek south into nearby France for the rest of the race.

Peter Sagan wins prelude to Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Three-time world road racing champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia made an outstanding start to the 2018 cycling season Sunday when he won the People’s Choice Classic, a prelude to the first World Tour event of the season, the Tour Down Under.

Sagan beat star sprinters Andre Greipel of Germany and Caleb Ewan of Australia in a bunch sprint to win the 50.6 kilometer (31.4 mile) race over 22 laps of a street course in central Adelaide.

The win means Sagan will wear the tour leader’s ocher jersey in the first stage of the six stage Tour Down Under on Tuesday. Sunday’s race does not count toward general classification.

Ewan won the race in each of the past two years and Greipel is the only three-time winner. The 132-strong field that lined up for the race Sunday included seven former winners.