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.”

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.”