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.”

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.