Froome poised to win his first Spanish Vuelta title

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ALTO DE L’ANGLIRU, Spain (AP) Chris Froome is poised to break his streak of runner-up finishes at the Spanish Vuelta after the Tour de France champion maintained his overall lead on the final competitive stage of the grand tour on Saturday.

Froome increased his advantage over Vincenzo Nibali through the rainy 117.5-kilometer (73-mile) mountainous ride in Stage 20 from Corvera de Asturias to a grueling summit finish at the Alto de l’Angliru.

Under race tradition, the top riders do not challenge each other in the professional final stage.

Dominant at the Tour in recent years, Froome has finished the Vuelta as runner-up on three occasions. He came in behind Juanjo Cobo in 2011, Alberto Contador in 2014, and Nairo Quintana last year.

Barring a mishap or accident on Sunday’s arrival in Madrid, Froome will become only the third rider to complete the Tour-Vuelta double in the same season. Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978) achieved the feat when the Vuelta was still held in the spring before the Tour.

Set to finally claim an elusive Vuelta title, Froome allowed himself a huge smile as he crossed the finish line. The British rider extended his lead of 1 minute, 37 seconds at the start of the day to 2:15 ahead of Nibali, the Italian who won the Vuelta in 2010 and finished second in 2013.

“It’s an absolutely incredible feeling. What a way to end such a massive three weeks of racing, having completed the Tour-Vuelta double,” Froome said. “Thanks to my team, which has been fantastic.”

Contador, who will retire after the race, won Stage 20 with an attack from distance to put a fine finish to his career that has included seven grand tour wins, including three Vueltas.

Contador left his last adversary with five kilometers left, with Spanish fans cheering him on as he powered his way up the brutal last ascent.

Froome and Sky teammate Wout Poels dropped Nibali on the last section. Poels crossed second right in front of Froome, 17 seconds after Contador.

Nibali’s Bahrain-Merida team set the pace up the second of three climbs on the stage in the northern mountains. The move shed all but the hardiest riders from Froome’s group heading up the category-one Alto del Cordal, only for Nibali to fall on the descent on the wet road and needing help from a teammate to make up the lost time. Marc Soler, who was at that point leading the stage, and David de la Cruz also crashed on the same descent.

After losing several minutes on the race’s second stage, Contador dedicated the rest of his final event to attacking whenever possible. The Madrid-born rider didn’t disappoint with another daring attack to claim his second career win at the demanding Alto de l’Angliru in 3 1/2 hours.

It was a brilliant final page of a great but controversial career. The 34-year-old Contador is second only to the great Miguel Indurain in Spanish cycling lore after winning the Tour twice. But he was also shamed when stripped of a third Tour title for doping.

“There cannot be a more beautiful finish than this, winning at Alto de l’Angliru to put an end to my sporting career,” Contador said. “I wanted to go out like this, and there is no better place than here to say goodbye.”

Contador just missed joining Froome, Nibali and Ilnur Zakarin on the podium.

“It was such a tough climb. We did everything we could to catch Alberto, but he was too strong,” Froome said after he embraced Contador, one of his top rivals for years. “Congratulations to him. For him to finish his career like this is beautiful.”

No charges in UK cycling doping case over lack of records

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LONDON (AP) No charges will be brought over the doping investigation that cast a cloud over the reputation of British cycling and Bradley Wiggins, the former Tour de France champion and the country’s most decorated Olympian.

But Britain’s anti-doping agency did express concern Wednesday that its investigation was hampered by the failure to retain accurate medical records in a sport that prided itself on meticulous precision planning as the country became an Olympic superpower.

The case centered on the contents of a medical package dispatched from the shared British Cycling-Team Sky medical facility in Manchester to Wiggins at the 2011 Dauphine Libere race in France, a key pre-Tour race. It was couriered by a British Cycling employee despite Wiggins competing for the Sky team in the race, a year before winning the Tour de France.

Details about the package were leaked last year by the Daily Mail newspaper and it took months for Team Sky to disclose the contents of the package, eventually telling a parliamentary hearing in London it contained Fluimucil, a brand name for a legal decongestant containing acetylcysteine used for clearing mucus.

But there is no paper trail or written evidence of the treatment and the U.K. Anti-Doping Agency was investigating whether the substance was in fact the banned corticosteroid called triamcinolone. UKAD said Wednesday that it “remains unable to confirm or refute the account that the package delivered to Team Sky contained Fluimucil.”

“Our investigation was hampered by a lack of accurate medical records being available at British Cycling,” UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead said. “This is a serious concern.”

Team Sky was established in 2009 by Dave Brailsford, the brains behind Britain’s 14 medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with the target of producing the country’s first Tour – a feat accomplished by Wiggins in 2012. Team Sky’s Chris Froome, his former teammate, has won it four times since.

Brailsford held dual roles with the British Cycling governing body and the team sponsored by the Sky satellite broadcaster before stepping down from his performance director job at British Cycling in 2014.

A shared medical storage facility in Manchester is emblematic of the blurred lines between the two, supposedly separate entities are at the heart of the case that anti-doping investigators and legislators tried to untangle.

British Cycling said it has now implemented “significant changes” to its management of medical services to establish clearer boundaries.

“The relationship between British Cycling and Team Sky developed rapidly and as a result, at times, resulted in the blurring of the boundaries between the two,” British Cycling chief executive Julie Harrington said. “This led to some failings in the way that processes and people were managed.”

Making no direct reference to the failure to keep detailed medical records, Team Sky said: “We have co-operated fully with UK Anti-Doping over the last year.”

The British parliamentary inquiry, which investigated the incident, plans to issue a report by the end of the year. Damian Collins, who heads the sports committee, said there are “serious and worrying problems” within British cycling relating to anti-doping.

U.K. Anti-Doping said the case could be reopened if new evidence emerges. Some information on the case has been passed to the General Medical Council regulatory body.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Giro riders face political hurdles next year in Jerusalem

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JERUSALEM — When the world’s cycling elite converge on Israel next year for the storied Giro d’Italia race, they will grapple with the rugged hills of Jerusalem, speed by the shimmering Mediterranean Sea and huff their way through the moonscape of the southern Negev Desert.

But one place the riders will skip is the crown jewel of the local tourism industry, Jerusalem’s ancient Old City.

Under a longstanding tradition, the annual multi-stage race has had some starts and stages take place outside of Italy. In a public relations coup for Israel, the 2018 event here will be the first time the race has taken place outside of Europe. The Giro is to start in Jerusalem and include two additional stages in Israel.

Race organizers said the route will not go through any land considered occupied by the international community. That means the course will circumvent the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians as parts of a future independent state.

Race director Mauro Vegni said he was aware of the political sensitivities and had drawn up the course with the “guidance” of the Italian Foreign Ministry.

“The reality is that we want it to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion,” Vegni told The Associated Press.

Avoiding politics, however, is difficult when dealing with Jerusalem. Israel considers east Jerusalem an inseparable part of its capital, while the Palestinians claim the area as their capital. The conflicting and emotional claims to east Jerusalem, home to the city’s most sensitive holy sites, lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often complicate what might be routine events in other locales.

Foreign dignitaries rarely enter east Jerusalem, and when they do visit, such as President Donald Trump’s trip to the Old City last May, it is usually done privately.

In the case of the Giro, the opening stage in Jerusalem will carefully avoid the city’s invisible pre-1967 boundaries.

Riders will be able to glimpse the ancient walls of the Old City, but they will not enter it or any Palestinian neighborhoods. Other stages are planned along the Mediterranean coast, and in the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

The Italian Foreign Ministry confirmed it had helped Italian race organizers “get a better understanding of the broader political context” and make sure the “routes are inside the pre-1967 borders.”

The Giro is one of cycling’s prestigious Grand Tour races, along with the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta. The race in Israel will mark the first time that any of the Grand Tour events is held outside of Europe.

It’s an achievement for Giro organizer RCS Sport to go beyond the continent ahead of rival ASO, which organizes the Tour and the Vuelta. Giro organizers declined to say how much their Israeli partners had paid to bring the race to Israel.

Israeli leaders and local race officials said they are thrilled to host the Giro, labeling it as the biggest and most prestigious sporting event ever held in Israel. They expect tens of thousands of tourists and cycling enthusiasts.

“We understand that not everyone agrees with us,” said Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Gilad Erdan, who oversees the country’s efforts to counter an international pro-Palestinian boycott movement of the Jewish state.

Erdan said the fact the Giro is coming to Israel “is a huge achievement in and of itself that strengthens Israel’s legitimacy.”

The Sports Ministry, whose minister, Miri Regev, is so passionate about Jerusalem that she wore a dress decorated with the walls of the Old City to the Cannes Film Festival this year, called the race a symbol of “peace and unity.” The ministry said the Giro would promote Israel’s history, heritage, “magical views” and holy sites.

That does not mean the race organizers can just coast to the finish line. The Palestinians and their allies in the boycott movement have objected to promotional materials on the Giro’s social media that include photos and videos of the Old City of Jerusalem.

A photo on the Giro’s Twitter account shows the Spanish cycling great Alberto Contador with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barket in front of the Old City, and a video on Facebook shows footage of the Western Wall and other sites inside the Old City.

The Palestinian ambassador in Rome, May Kaileh, said her embassy is putting pressure on the race to remove the photos.

The Palestinian sports minister, Jibril Rajoub, called the photographs an “issue of misunderstanding” and said he hopes they will be removed. “The most important thing for us, the race is not entering the 1967 boundaries, including east Jerusalem,” he said.

However, Omar Barghouti, Palestinian co-founder of the anti-Israel boycott movement, called on the Giro to cancel the Israel stages altogether and move the race elsewhere.

Promotional material that “deceptively” portrays east Jerusalem as part of Israel, and working with an Israeli partner that does business in West Bank settlements, amount to “shameful complicity” with Israeli rights violations, he said.

Barghouti also promised pro-Palestinian demonstrations if the race takes place in Israel.

“Civil society organizations in Palestine, Italy and throughout Europe are mobilizing to convince participating teams, sponsors and cycling federations to pressure Giro d’Italia to relocate the race,” he said. “Giro d’Italia can expect nonviolent, lively protests if it insists on whitewashing Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”

Vegni, the Giro director, rejected the criticism.

“I hope that it’s treated as a sports event. And I hope it’s treated as a sports event by the Palestinians also,” he said.