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Giro director to Froome: Come make ‘history’ in Italy

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ROME — Rain, often snow, and sometimes even mud.

The conditions at the Giro d’Italia are often everything that Chris Froome dislikes most.

Yet if the Kenyan-born, heat-loving Briton enters next year’s race he’ll have the chance to become the first cyclist to win the Tour de France, Spanish Vuelta and Giro in succession.

“He has to have the desire to try and become the first rider to achieve this feat,” Giro director Mauro Vegni said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It would be historical.”

Froome finally won the Vuelta last month to add to his four Tour titles, leaving the Giro as the only Grand Tour he hasn’t claimed.

While no cyclist has ever won all three Grand Tours in the same season, two riders have won three or more consecutive Grand Tours over two seasons.

Eddy Merckx won four straight in 1972 (Giro and Tour) and 1973 (Vuelta and Giro), and Bernard Hinault won three in 1982 (Giro and Tour) and 1983 (Vuelta).

But nobody has achieved the feat since the Vuelta was moved to the end of the season in 1995. And only six riders have won all three Grand Tours in their careers.

“I think he should have the right motivation to come,” Vegni said this week.

Still, it’s unlikely that Froome will want to risk his chances of matching the record of five Tour titles held by Merckx, Hinault, Jacques Anquetil and Miguel Indurain.

After all, nobody has achieved the Giro-Tour double since the late Marco Pantani in 1998.

“If he wins the Giro, who’s stopping him?” Vegni said. “He’s one of the few riders who can really attempt to follow a Giro victory by also taking the Tour. But first he should grab this milestone. There’s plenty of motivation but it needs to be him that judges it worthy of attempting.”

Perhaps making matters easier, the Tour will start a week later next year to avoid conflicting with soccer’s World Cup – which would give Froome six weeks rather than five to recover and refocus after the Giro.

Froome has raced the Giro twice but not since before he became a Grand Tour contender.

He finished 36th in the 2009 Giro and was disqualified from the 2010 edition for holding on to a police motorbike up the feared Mortirolo pass.

The Giro also remains the only Grand Tour that Froome’s dominant Team Sky has never won.

Former Sky leader Bradley Wiggins entered the 2013 Giro as favorite only to struggle with crashes and wet roads before withdrawing midway through the race with a chest infection.

Geraint Thomas, one of Froome’s most loyal support riders, made an attempt at winning his first Grand Tour in this year’s Giro, only to withdraw with an injured knee following a crash caused by a police motorbike that also affected another Sky hopeful, Mikel Landa.

Vegni is going to have make quite a sales pitch to Froome and Sky team principal Dave Brailsford.

“We’re working on it,” Vegni said. “I think we’ll have a chat with (Froome), his physical trainer and his manager before the end of the year.”

Yet Vegni has no intention of paying Froome to come, like previous race director Angelo Zomegnan did with Lance Armstrong in 2009 – when an acknowledged fee of about $1 million convinced the now-disgraced American to compete in his only Giro.

“I don’t think that a rider like Froome or like Armstrong was has the necessity to be `hired,’ if we want to use that term,” Vegni said. “It’s more necessary that they feel it suits them. Riders like them don’t need any extra money. They need more of a plan, a goal, and motivation that gives them the desire to participate.”

Giro organizers recently announced that next year’s race from May 4-27 will begin with three stages in Israel – marking the first time a Grand Tour will be held outside Europe.

The rest of the route through Italy will be presented in late November.

With teams still formulating their plans for next year, Vegni is also unsure whether defending champion Tom Dumoulin or Italian standouts Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru will commit to the Giro.

But the focus is on Froome.

“He creates the most interest,” Vegni said.

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.”

Van Garderen embraces No. 2 role for team at Tour de France

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LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, France – For years, Tejay van Garderen has been the United States’ best hope of winning the Tour de France.

But for this edition of the world’s biggest cycling race, Van Garderen is tasked with doing all he can for teammate Richie Porte to fight for the title.

“It’s different. It’s certainly less pressure, and when you have a leader like Richie it’s a role that is easy to jump into,” Van Garderen said on Thursday, two days before the race starts in western France.

Van Garderen’s first job will be to do his part on the team time trial on Stage 3. A good result by BMC would boost Porte’s chances of ending Chris Froome’s dominance at the Tour.

His next challenge as his team’s No. 2 will be to protect Porte on the climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees where only the hardiest riders can keep up.

Van Garderen, who finished the Tour of California second in May, showed he can protect Porte in the mountains when he helped the Australian win the Tour de Suisse last month by reeling in rivals when they attacked.

“He already performed well in that role, especially in the Tour de Suisse, when (Mikel) Landa and (Nairo) Quintana launched attacks,” BMC sports director Fabio Baldato told The Associated Press. “It’s a new role but he’s well established within the team.”

When acting as BMC’s leader, Van Garderen finished the Tour in fifth place in 2012 and 2014.

In 2015, he was riding in third place and aiming for a spot on the podium in Paris when he fell ill and was forced to withdraw.

Those ascending results generated expectations that Van Garderen could one day become the first American to cleanly win the Tour since Greg LeMond in 1989 and 1990. Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis were later stripped of their Tour titles for having doped.

But when Porte joined BMC in 2016, the American team said Porte and Van Garderen were the co-leaders at the Tour. Porte finished a career-best fifth in the race, while Van Garderen was 29th. Van Garderen skipped last year’s Tour to ride in the Giro d’Italia.

Baldato said it was the 29-year-old Van Garderen who wanted to play wingman this time around.

“He asked to come to the Tour as a support rider. We call him a teammate `di lusso’ (an extra special teammate),” Baldato told The AP. “The pressure that came with being the leader wasn’t easy to handle. Now that he’s free of that pressure he’s got less weight on his shoulders.

“It will free his mind up and make him ride better.”

Porte knows what it means to be a shield-bearer. He was Froome’s ally when he won his first two Tour titles in 2013 and 2015 for Team Sky.

At 33, Porte also knows this may be his last chance to win an elusive Grand Tour. Last year he was in contention for the Tour until he crashed out.

When asked if he would be prepared to take over if Porte again falters, Van Garderen replied with a curt, “I will do what I am told.

“(Porte) is in great shape and he has a good shot to get on the podium in Paris and I am looking forward to helping him to be able to do that.”