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Damien Howson maintains lead after Stage 2 of Herald Sun Tour

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian Damien Howson kept the Herald Sun Tour lead on Friday after overcoming a tire puncture late in the 165.6-kilometer second stage of the four-stage race.

The tire blowout with 20 kilometers to go on the stage from Mount Beauty to Beechworth put Howson on the defensive, but his Orica-Scott teammates dropped back to help him and he did not lose any time to his main rivals.

“Trying to remain calm was pretty difficult, but I had them all around me,” Howson said of his teammates. Mitch Docker gave Howson his front wheel when the Tour leader sustained the puncture.

Three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome’s British teammate Luke Rowe won the stage with a solo breakaway for his first professional stage win since 2012.

It follows teammate Danny van Poppel’s prologue time-trial win, but Froome gained no time on Howson and even went down one place on the overall standings.

Howson retained his 38-second overall lead over compatriot Jai Hindley. Froome stayed one minute and 12 seconds behind Howson, but dropped from fifth to sixth overall.

Froome also showed some racing protocol on the climb, reported by race officials to have eased off the pace and honoring cycling’s unwritten rule not to attack the leader if he had experienced a mechanical problem.

The Tour continues on Saturday with a 167.7-kilometer stage from Benalla to Mitchelton, followed by the concluding stage Sunday at Kinglake north of Melbourne.

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.