Greg Van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar lead thrilling Paris-Roubaix finish

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ROUBAIX, France (AP) Olympic road champion Greg Van Avermaet overtook Zdenek Stybar just before the line in a thrilling sprint finish to win the Paris-Roubaix classic for the first time on Sunday.

With five riders in contention on the final lap entering the velodrome in Roubaix, Stybar launched a blistering attack. But the Belgian rider countered it brilliantly, going on the outside of the Czech rider and streaking past him in the last 10 meters. Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld finished third.

Van Avermaet screamed with joy, while Stybar thumped his handlebar in frustration. After dismounting, Van Avermaet rushed over to hug his BMC teammate Daniel Oss of Italy, who had ridden hard in front to put him in a winning position.

“It feels really good. I suffered a lot, but when you win you forget everything. I was just really strong in the end,” Van Avermaet said. “This race is right up there among the classics. After many years, I’ve managed to win it.”

It was even more satisfying for Van Avermaet considering he lost nearly one minute after crashing earlier in the race.

The race is known as the “Hell of the North” for the numerous cobblestone sections along the 257-kilometer (159.3-mile) trek to Roubaix in northern France.

About 100 kilometers from the end Van Avermaet fell on one of them, shouting for a new bike as he clutched his left shoulder.

Van Avermaet, who recovered from a fall last Sunday to finish second at the Tour of Flanders, frantically caught back up while Tom Boonen continued to attack from the front of the peloton, chasing down the three breakaway riders.

Boonen, racing for the final time in a glittering classics career, led the peloton into the famed Trouee d’Arenberg – a notoriously difficult cobble section stretching for 2 kilometers (1.24 kilometers) – although dry conditions spared riders the risk of treacherous slips.

Trying to break free of the peloton, Boonen attacked again with 70 kilometers to go, with world champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia on his wheel.

Up ahead, the three breakaway riders were now two – with Jasper Stuyven of Belgium and Oss about 30 seconds ahead.

Stuyven soon dropped back, while Oss was joined by six other riders – including Van Avermaet -to form a small leading group.

Sagan lost some valuable time to repair a puncture, while Boonen lagged behind and finished the race in 13th.

Van Avermaet continues his great form this season. He recently won the Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke classics, adding to his victory last month in Het Nieuwsblad.

The 31-year-old Van Avermaet is at his peak, while Boonen ends his career falling short of a record fifth win at Paris-Roubaix.

“He’s a really exceptional rider, exceptional person and exceptional friend,” Stybar said of Boonen, his Quick-Step Floors teammate. “It’s a pity we couldn’t bring him to first place.”

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.