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Philippe Gilbert wins royal sprint to claim Amstel Gold Race

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VOLKENBURG, Netherlands — Philippe Gilbert’s renaissance continued Sunday as the Belgium champion won a two-man sprint to claim a fourth victory in the Amstel Gold Race classic.

The 34-year-old former world champion, who also won the Tour of Flanders earlier this month, produced a strong final push to catch former winner Michal Kwiatkowski, who launched the sprint with about 300 meters (yards) left.

“He surprised me a little in the sprint, but it was a headwind so I didn’t panic, and I saw I was getting closer and closer, and it was perfect for me in the end,” said Gilbert, who has also won nine stages on the Tour de France, Spanish Vuelta and Italian Giro during his career.

Michael Albasini won the dash for third place.

An early break from a group of a dozen riders highlighted the first hours of the race on the rolling hills of Limburg province but the final battle shaped up with 40 kilometers (25 miles) to go when Tiesj Benoot attacked on the Kruisberg climb, with Gilbert in his wake. Benoot’s efforts were hampered by a mechanical problem and the young Belgian rider was dropped from the leading group.

After former winners Roman Kreuziger and Enrico Gasparotto saw their hopes of victory vanish in a crash, Kwiatkowski managed to join the leaders on the punishing Keutenberg climb with an impressive burst that left Greg Van Avermaet and Alejandro Valverde behind.

With 19 kilometers to go, Kwiatkowski led the seven-man group as they tackled the third and final climb up the Cauberg hill with a 30-second lead over the main peloton. The tough final climb to the finish up the Cauberg – a 1.5 kilometer ascent at an average gradient of 5.8 percent – was moved up in this year’s route as organizers tried to create a more open race. In the past, climbing specialists often waited until the short but steep ascent shortly before the finish line to make their move.

The seven breakaway riders worked well together and resisted the chasing peloton although Jose Joaquin Rojas did not take turns at the front. Kwiatkowski tried a solo move in the Bemelerberg, the last of the 35 climbs in the race, about 5.5 kilometers from the finish, but Gilbert countered his attack. The duo stayed together all the way to the finish where Gilbert proved the stronger.

“It was a hard final,” Gilbert said. “All of us deserved the win today because we really worked together … In the end with Kwiato we went hard, I saw the guys behind were on the limit. I was too but if you can find one or two percent more, it makes the difference. I told him: `We ride until the last kilometer and the best man wins.’ That’s the best deal you can make.”

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.