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Alejandro Valverde eyes Tour of Catalonia title after Chris Froome fades

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REUS, Spain — Chris Froome fell out of contention for the Tour of Catalonia after ceding over 25 minutes to leader Alejandro Valverde during the sixth stage on Saturday.

A group attack that included Valverde’s Movistar broke away early and left Froome behind in the peloton. The three-time Tour de France winner, who entered the stage second in the classification at 21 seconds behind Valverde, was unable to close the gap and faded the rest of the way.

“On the first mountain the peloton broke apart, above all on the descent, and we caught Sky off guard,” Valverde said. “They couldn’t find a way to make up the ground.”

Froome’s Sky team tweeted before the stage was finished that “It’s game over at (hash)VoltaCatalunya.”

Daryl Impey of South Africa edged Valverde in a sprint finish to win the 189-kilometer (117-mile) ride from Tortosa to Reus that crossed snow-covered mountainous terrain in 4 1/2 hours.

Valverde, who took the lead after winning Friday’s stage, increased his advantage to 53 seconds over nearest chaser Alberto Contador.

Valverde leads the race despite being penalized one minute on Wednesday after race officials ruled that some Movistar riders pushed one another on Tuesday during the team time trial.

Valverde can claim a second title at the event if he protects his advantage during Sunday’s 139-kilometer (86-mile) route finishing at a hilltop overlooking Barcelona. He won the weeklong race in northeastern Spain in 2009.

“In theory we shouldn’t have too many difficulties, but I am sure there will be some attacks,” Valverde said about the final stage.

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.