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Key stages on the 2017 Tour de France route

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PARIS (AP) With 21 stages, 23 tough climbs in five mountain ranges, three mountain-top finishes and two time trials, the route for the 2017 Tour de France, unveiled Tuesday in Paris, promises an array of challenges for the wide variety of skill sets in the professional cycling peloton.

Here is a quick look at what to look forward to at the 104th edition of cycling’s greatest race:

OFF WITH A BANG: At just 13 kilometers (8 miles), the opening time trial on Day One in Duesseldorf, Germany, is short enough for a good number of riders to harbor ambitions of winning it and becoming the first wearer of the race leader’s iconic yellow jersey – a guaranteed highlight of any rider’s career.

It also isn’t long enough for riders who are strong against the clock, like defending champion Chris Froome, to open up big gaps over weaker time trialers like key rival Nairo Quintana.

That is good for fans, because it will mean the race isn’t decided early on, but perhaps not so good for riders. With most of them still in contention after the time trial and full of nervous energy, they will race hell for leather over the next three flattish stages, increasing the likelihood of crashes that could take out top contenders.

SPRINTERS SHINE: Sprinters like Mark Cavendish, who can hit speeds of 70 kilometers per hour (40 miles per hour) over short distances, will be looking for victories on the stages between Duesseldorf and Day 5, when the Tour veers sharply uphill in the Vosges – spiky, hilly terrain where bulkier, muscly sprinters struggle. They will get more opportunities for victories in Burgundy wine country at the end of week one, in week two before the Pyrenees and, of course, on the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees boulevard at the end of the final stage in Paris on July 23.

OUCH, THIS HURTS: In their perpetual quest to innovate at the 113-year-old race, Tour organizers have slightly cut down on the quantity of climbs in 2017 but ratcheted up their steepness. Six particularly steep ascents stand out, starting with 20-percent gradients up to the Planche des Belles Filles ski station in the Vosges in eastern France. Froome won the stage there in 2012. The Col du Grand Colombier, in the Jura mountains on stage nine, has the sharpest gradients next year – 22 percent, steep enough to burn out the clutches of reporters who follow the race by car if they’re not careful.

Also in the Jura are the 15-percent gradients of the Mont du Chat, last climbed by the Tour in 1974.

“One of the hardest climbs in France,” says Tour director Christian Prudhomme.

Other gradients of note are 16-percent slopes to the Peyragudes ski station and 18-percent stretches on the Mur de Peguere, both in the Pyrenees, and a 14-percent section on the Col de Peyra Taillade, on stage 15 in the Massif Central.

QUEEN STAGE: Every Tour has a stage that stands out for its difficulty and the drama that is expected to generate, the so-called “Queen stage.” Next year that appears to be the unprecedented mountain-top finish at the Col d’Izoard in the Alps. The lunar and hostile terrain of sun- and snow-scorched rocks and the thinning mountain air on the long climb to an altitude of 2,360 meters (7,742 feet) could make the Izoard, at the end of stage 18, the last big battleground among surviving contenders for the winner’s check of 500,000 euros ($550,000).

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: The 23-kilometer (14-mile) time trial in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille on the penultimate stage 20 should settle overall rider placings before the largely ceremonial final ride into Paris the next day. The clock-race will start and finish in the Velodrome Stadium that is home to the city’s football team, and will scoot through the Old Port, with a short climb to the white basilica that overlooks France’s second-largest city.

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.