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Howson leads after Day 1 of Herald Sun Tour, Froome sixth

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian cyclist Damien Howson took the overall lead in the Herald Sun Tour after winning the grueling opening Falls Creek stage on Thursday, leaving three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome in sixth place.

Howson leads Orica-Scott teammate Esteban Chaves and Froome by more than a minute. It was the first professional win for Howson, the 2013 under-23 world time-trial champion.

The stage had been billed as a duel between Froome and Chaves, the two best climbers in the field.

But Howson and Froome’s Team Sky teammate Kenny Ellisonde broke clear of the main group midway up the 29-kilometer climb to the finish at Falls Creek that highlighted the 174-kilometer opening stage from Wangaratta.

Once they caught leader Steve Lampier of Britain, the pair continued building a lead. Howson then attacked inside the last three kilometers and won by 32 seconds.

Lampier’s Australian teammate Jai Hindley also had a strong opening day, catching and then passing Ellisonde for second place.

Ellisonde finished third at 47 seconds, while Australian Michael Storer was fourth and Chaves was fifth over the line at a minute and 10 seconds.

Froome was a second further back in sixth spot.

Howson leads Hindley overall by 38 seconds and Ellisonde is third at 53 seconds.

The Tour concludes Sunday with a hilly last stage at Kinglake north of Melbourne.

“Team Sky are one of the world’s strongest teams so I guarantee they are going to throw everything they have (at us),” Howson said. “There’s still a lot of tough stages to come, but I also have a very strong team behind me.”

World champ Peter Sagan to race in Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) Three-time world road race champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia has confirmed he will compete in the Tour Down Under in January, the opening World Tour event of the season.

Sagan won the world title last month for the third straight year, becoming the first cyclist to do so. He competed in the Tour Down Under for the first time last year, finishing second on three stages behind Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan.

Sagan, who rides for the BORA-hansgrohe team, said the six-stage Tour Down Under is “the perfect start to the UCI World Tour season each year … a challenging and tough course, warm weather and the passionate fans that cheer for us day in day out no matter what.”

Former Olympic cycling champ fired after positive drug test

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SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) Former Olympic road cycling champion Samuel Sanchez, who returned a positive doping test in August, had his B-sample confirmed Wednesday and was promptly fired by the BMC Racing Team.

Sanchez’s out-of-competition test revealed growth hormone-releasing peptide 2, or GHRP-2, a drug that increases a body’s level of growth hormone. Several cyclists have tested positive for the drug, among them Italian rider Stefano Pirazzi, who was given a four-year ban earlier this week.

The U.S.-based BMC Team said in a statement Wednesday that it was adhering to its zero-tolerance policy toward doping by terminating the Spaniard’s contract “with immediate effect.”

The 39-year-old Sanchez, who had been provisionally suspended, won gold at the 2008 Beijing Games.