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Greg Van Avermaet wins E3 Harelbeke after three-man sprint

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HARELBEKE, Belgium — Olympic road champion Greg Van Avermaet came out on top of a three-man sprint to win the E3 Harelbeke as Belgian riders secured a 1-2-3 finish in the one-day cobbled race on Friday.

Van Avermaet edged former world champion Philippe Gilbert. Oliver Naesen completed the podium.

Tom Boonen broke up the peloton when he attacked on the Taaienberg hill. A small group followed, and the Belgian trio pulled away on the steep cobbled slopes of the Oude Kwaremont, and stayed ahead all the way to the finish.

The Belgians sized each other carefully in the final kilometer. Naesen ignited the sprint 250 meters from the line. He made his move too soon, and Van Avermaet caught him with ease, then resisted Gilbert’s response to claim his first win in the E3.

It was Van Avermaet’s second important win this season following his success in the Het Nieuwsblad in February.

Gilbert, who was runner-up to Yves Lampaert in the Dwars doo Vlaanderen race midweek, looked strong in the finale but maybe chose too big a gear, failing to catch his rival.

“It gives me a lot of confidence for Flanders,” Van Avermaet said, referring to the Tour of Flanders, the region’s big race on April 2.

The race was marred by crashes, and Tony Gallopin of France was forced to withdraw with a suspected left wrist injury. His Lotto Soudal team said he would be taken to hospital for a medical checkup. World champion Peter Sagan was also caught up in a crash 42 kilometers from the finish but appeared uninjured.

After Giro crash, Thomas back to support Froome in Tour

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PARIS (AP) Chris Froome will have support rider Geraint Thomas alongside him again as he pursues a fourth Tour de France title in five years.

Thomas opened the year aiming for victory in the Giro d’Italia but was forced to abandon that race because of injuries sustained in a crash caused by a police motorbike.

Thomas recently returned in the Route du Sud and gives Team Sky a second overall option if Froome struggles.

Also named to Sky’s squad Thursday were: Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Christian Knees, Michal Kwiatkowski, Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve and Luke Rowe.

Landa was injured in the same Giro crash as Thomas but stayed in the race, winning the 19th stage and posting three more podium finishes to claim the mountains classification.

Henao and Landa should also escort Froome in the mountains.

Froome won the Tour in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

“Aiming for that fourth victory has given me a lot of motivation,” Froome said. “To me, each Tour tells a different story. Every Tour is a different battle in terms of getting that yellow jersey and then trying to hold on to it.”

Froome preceded each of his Tour victories by winning the Criterium du Dauphine but he finished only fourth in the warm-up race this year – with former Sky teammate Richie Porte taking victory. But the Kenyan-born British rider believes he’s still the man to beat.

“We’re ready as a team and I can’t wait for the Tour to start now. Honestly, I just love it. It’s a feeling that you don’t get from any other race,” Froome said.

Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain share the record with five Tour wins each – after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven victories for doping.

“To win the Tour once is a huge achievement, but to win it a fourth time would be remarkable,” Sky team principal Dave Brailsford said. “We’ve selected a strong and experienced lineup who will support (Froome), and we’ll be looking to use the strength of the team to our advantage.”

The Tour begins July 1 in Duesseldorf and concludes in Paris three weeks later.

Cavendish back racing with Tour de France still possible

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LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) Mark Cavendish returned to cycling for the first time since March on Thursday at the Tour of Slovenia, and the sprint star remains hopeful he can start the Tour de France next month.

Cavendish had not raced since Milano-Sanremo in March. He came down with mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus in April, forcing him to the sideline during his typical Tour prep.

The 32-year-old British cyclist has 30 stage wins in France, four shy of Eddy Merckx’s record.

This year’s Tour begins with a short time trial July 1 in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Cavendish said he’s “fit as I can be after four weeks of training,” but his health will be closely monitored during the four-day Tour of Slovenia. Sam Bennett won Thursday’s opening stage in a sprint.