TOUR DE FRANCE: Astana aims to add yellow to pink

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ROME — When the team directors at Astana sat down to plan this season, the outline went something like this: A pink jersey for Vincenzo Nibali, a yellow jersey for Fabio Aru, and a gold medal for Nibali.

Nibali carried out the first part of the plan to perfection by winning the Giro d’Italia. Aru has to do his part when the Tour de France starts on Saturday at Mont-Saint-Michel. Then Nibali is expected to lead Italy’s team in the road race at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with support from Aru.

While Nibali’s Giro victory was produced in dramatic fashion by taking the lead on the penultimate stage, winning the Tour on Aru’s debut in the French classic should be a much tougher assignment, even with Nibali aiding Aru as an unlikely support rider.

“When we made this choice in November after the Tour presentation we knew it was the most difficult option for Fabio,” Astana team director Giuseppe Martinelli said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

“After finishing third and second in the Giro the last two years, it would have been easier to aim for the Giro,” Martinelli added. “We decided to aim for the Tour because we don’t have anything to lose. And because we’re convinced we can do well.”

The climbing specialist Aru won the Spanish Vuelta last year and at 25 is considered one of the future stars of the Tour.

Only 11 cyclists have won the Tour on their first attempt, including greats Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Felice Gimondi.

The last man to achieve the feat was French rider Laurent Fignon in 1983.

Aru, however, is not even considered among the top three favorites for this year’s Tour. He’s generally ranked just below defending champion Chris Froome, two-time winner Alberto Contador, and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana.

“We realize that the best riders and teams go to the Tour, that they’re all in top form, and that it’s not going to be easy,” Martinelli said. “But Fabio has always surprised us since he turned pro. So I hope the same thing happens at the Tour.

“Not many people expected Fabio’s Vuelta victory.”

As for Nibali’s role, Martinelli has handled having two captains in the same squad before. He was at Saeco when Damiano Cunego usurped team leadership from Gilberto Simoni to win the 2004 Giro, and he guided Stefano Garzelli to an unexpected pink jersey in 2000 when captain Marco Pantani struggled.

“This is a little different, because there are so many different goals on offer and we can handle it a little better,” Martinelli said. “The Giro victory has made Vincenzo much more relaxed, he’s already achieved one of his principal goals for this season.

“(Nibali) is going to the Tour with the aim of ensuring that Fabio remains in the best possible condition, to help him do well, and be competitive in some stages. But the main thing is to prepare for the Olympics.”

Nibali has not raced since the Giro and has been preparing for the Tour with a 15-day training camp on the 1,918-meter (6,293-foot) San Pellegrino Pass.

Having won the Tour in 2014, and as the holder of four Grand Tour victories, is Nibali really not considering a run at the general classification in France?

“I don’t think so,” Martinelli said. “I’m not thinking about that right now. We all know that Fabio has prepared well for the Tour and in our plans, Vincenzo is the guy for the Olympics.”

Nobody since Pantani in 1998 has won the Giro and Tour in the same year.

Contador made a stated attempt at the double last year but followed up his Giro win with a fifth-place finish in the Tour, acknowledging that he ran out of energy.

“It’s very unlikely to happen again,” said Martinelli, who directed Pantani’s Mercatone Uno team in `98.

Whatever the results, this will likely be Nibali’s last Tour with Astana. The Sicilian is expected to join a new World Tour team from Bahrain next year.

“There are a lot of rumors out there regarding Nibali and I really think there’s a chance that Nibali could leave our squad,” Martinelli said. “But Astana will go on. Nibali is important to the squad but there are other riders who can make the team proud, too.”

 

Sagan takes third win at Tour, Thomas keeps lead on Stage 13

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VALENCE, France (AP) After most of the other top sprinters at the Tour de France succumbed in the Alps, Peter Sagan was in prime position to dominate Friday’s flat finish.

Cycling’s world champion did not disappoint, timing his move to reach maximum speed as he swung past two challengers to claim Stage 13 by a wheel length and take his third win of this race.

Seconds after Sagan reasserted his status as the most feared finisher left on the Tour, overall leader Geraint Thomas safely crossed in the pack along with teammate – and nearest challenger – Chris Froome.

Behind about 20 riders with a kilometer to go, Sagan charged to overtake runner-up Alexander Kristoff and Arnaud Demare, who finished third, at the finish line.

Sagan’s 11th career win at the world’s biggest bike race came after he was the fastest to the line in bunch sprints on Stages 2 and 5.

This time, Sagan was racing against a field of sprinters greatly depleted by three grueling days in the mountains.

Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen, who both won two stages on this Tour, along with Andre Greipel all abandoned the race on Thursday, while 30-stage winner Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel failed to make the time cut on Wednesday.

Sagan said their absence made sprinting “messy.”

“It’s changed,” he said. “Everybody wants to do a sprint now. It’s pretty messy.”

Facing no attacks on the flat stage, Thomas had no trouble maintaining his advantage of 1 minute, 39 seconds over defending champion Froome.

Tom Dumoulin stayed third overall at 1:50 behind. Primoz Roglic was fourth at 2:46, and Romain Bardet was fifth at 3:07 back.

After overzealous fans marred Thomas’ win on Thursday atop the Alpe d’Huez, the otherwise complete calm of Friday’s leg was briefly disturbed by a man on the roadside who tossed a smoke bomb into the center of the peloton as it passed by with 16 kilometers left.

Thomas said he didn’t see the smoke bomb which, besides spitting out yellow fumes, appeared to do no harm.

As for the jeers directed toward him and Froome by fans skeptical of Froome’s clearance from doping allegations days before the start of the Tour, he said it was part of being in the spotlight.

“I would rather be on the podium and be booed than be on the bus and have everyone cheering me,” Thomas said.

Thomas did ask for fans to not interfere in the race after Froome was slapped on the back going up Alpe d’Huez and contender Vincenzo Nibali was forced to quit after he broke a vertebra when knocked to the ground by a police motorbike tasked with keeping back the crowd.

The 169.5-kilometer (105-mile) leg starting from Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of the Alpe d’Huez delayed the resolution to the burning question of this race: Is Thomas really Sky’s top option while Froome seeks a fifth Tour title?

Thomas has said that although he would work to support Froome, he is not going to intentionally lose time.

But with Thomas so far proving to be the stronger rider even in the mountains where Froome normally makes his mark, their team appears ready to let the road decide.

“We’ve got two cards to play and it’s good for our strategy,” Sky sports director Nicolas Portal said before Friday’s stage.

“Who knows how long (Geraint) can hold this top level? Same for Froomey. The most important thing is the group is strong and we have the best position.”

Saturday’s Stage 14 is a hilly 188-kilometer trek from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux to Mende as the race makes its way to the Pyrenees Mountains.

And Froome seems eager for the action to return.

“Tomorrow we can see some good battles between the favorites,” Froome said.

Associated Press writers Andrew Dampf and Ciaran Fahey contributed

More Tour de France coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/TourdeFrance

Chris Froome happy as Tour de France heads for the mountains

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ANNECY, France – Chris Froome believes the mountains will reveal the true Tour de France contenders as he looks forward to the first of three grueling stages in the Alps.

“I’m feeling good and optimistic about the upcoming stages,” the four-time champion said on Monday, the Tour’s first rest day.

Froome, who is eighth overall after nine stages, is 1 minute, 42 seconds behind yellow-jersey holder Greg Van Avermaet before the first Alpine stage on Tuesday.

Van Avermaet is not expected to be a threat in the mountains, and Froome suggested the Belgian “will find it difficult to hang on tomorrow. It’s a proper climbers stage.”

After an opening week of relatively flat routes, the first significant ascents begin with four categorized climbs as well as the punishing Montee du plateau des Gileres, which features a six-kilometer climb at an incline of 11.2 percent.

“It’s a tough stage. It will definitely start shaping the GC,” Froome said of the general classification.

Sky teammate Geraint Thomas is second overall, 0:43 behind Van Avermaet, meaning the team has two viable options to claim the yellow jersey over the second week of the three-week Tour.

“It’s great for us to have those options to play when it comes down to it, especially looking at some of our rivals who have got two or three options in their team,” Froome said.

“The team around us is such a capable group of guys, and we’re really going to be coming into our element now in the mountains.”