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Philippe Gilbert wins Tour of Flanders

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (AP) Veteran Belgian rider Philippe Gilbert clinched his first win at the Tour of Flanders with a brilliant solo breakaway as the pre-race favorites failed to impress on Sunday.

The 34-year-old Gilbert made the decisive break some 55 kilometers (34 miles) from the finish and held off chasing riders. Peter Sagan, last year’s winner and among the favorites again, crashed 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) out as he went in pursuit of Gilbert.

Gilbert, a winner of nine stages on the Tour de France, Spanish Vuelta and Italian Giro, completed the 260-kilometer (161-mile) trek in just over 6 hours, 23 minutes.

As he crossed the line in Oudenaarde, the ecstatic Gilbert thumped his chest repeatedly and then climbed off his bike before raising it aloft to celebrate one of his best career wins.

Belgian rider Greg Van Avermaet finished second after holding off Dutchman Niki Terpstra in a sprint to the line.

Van Avermaet, the Olympic road champion, entered the race in great form. He recently won the Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke classics, adding to his victory last month in Het Nieuwsblad. But he and Terpstra were nearly 30 seconds behind Gilbert.

The race, also known as De Ronde, is part of five high-profile classics along with Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia. It features 18 short but punishing climbs and five cobblestone sections.

Paris-Roubaix, known as the “Hell of the North” for its treacherous cobbles, is next Sunday and sees four-time winner Tom Boonen competing in the final race of his career before retiring.

The 36-year-old Boonen wanted to sign off from the Tour of Flanders with a fourth win in front of his adoring home fans, but was happy to help his Quick-Step Floors teammate Gilbert claim the win, five years after Gilbert last competed in the race.

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.