Fuglsang wins thrilling stage 6 at Criterium du Dauphine

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LA MOTTE-SERVOLEX, France — Danish cyclist Jakob Fuglsang won the first mountain stage of the Criterium du Dauphine race in a thrilling finish on Friday, while Australian Richie Porte took the overall lead ahead of archrival Chris Froome with two stages remaining.

Stage six was a 147.5-kilometer (91.5-mile) slog from Le Parc des Oiseaux Villars-les-Dombes. It featured a grueling climb up Mont du Chat near the end, followed by a downhill finish to La Motte-Servolex.

Fuglsang attacked first heading into the last kilometer, but was caught by Porte, Froome and Italian Fabio Aru — who is Fuglsang’s Astana teammate.

In a pulsating charge to the line, Fuglsang held them off for a notable victory given the caliber of the opposition.

“It’s amazing to find yourself in front alongside two favorites for the Tour de France,” the 32-year-old Fuglsang said. “It’s great to win here for the first time.”

Porte finished second, with Froome third ahead of Aru.

“I’d be lying if I said I’m happy with third place. I battled hard for the stage win,” Froome said. “I worked a bit too hard in the last kilometer to chase down Fuglsang, and I started my sprint from way too far out.”

All four got the same time of 3 hours, 41 minutes, 48 seconds.

Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde was dropped on the big climb and finished fifth, 50 seconds behind.

The 32-year-old Porte is 39 seconds ahead of three-time champion Chris Froome — his former right-hand man at Team SKY — and 1:15 clear of Fuglsang in the standings. Despite losing time, Valverde is dangerously poised at 1:20 back in fourth.

Overnight leader Thomas De Gendt of Belgium paid for his lack of climbing ability and dropped down to 30th place, more than eight minutes behind.

Froome, who is the same age as Porte, is looking to win the race for the third straight year and fourth time overall. His first win here came in 2013, the year he went on to win the first of his three Tour titles. He also won the Tour in 2015 and ’16, mirroring his results at the Criterium.

Froome and Porte will battle it out again in the mountains on Saturday, on a famed climb they both know very well.

Stage seven, starting from Aoste, is over 168 kilometers (104 miles) and ends with an ascent of Alpe d’Huez — a climb with huge status on the Tour.

Sunday’s eighth and final stage is another fearsome mountain trek, with three big climbs and ending with an ascent of Plateau de Solaison.

Whoever comes out on top by Sunday will be confident of victory at the Tour, which begins on July 1.

“I’m pretty happy to be at the top with Richie, he’s in unbelievable form. He’s the best climber at the moment,” Froome said. “The Tour de France isn’t too far away now. I still have a bit of work to do, but I’m on the right track.”

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.