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2019 Tour will honor 1st victory of 5-time champion Merckx

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BRUSSELS (AP) The start of the 2019 Tour de France will be all about honoring Eddy Merckx in his hometown of Brussels.

Merckx, known as “The Cannibal” for his ferocious taste for victory, won the first of his five Tours in 1969. Half a century later, the Belgian great still sees it as one of the major accomplishments for a cyclist generally considered to be the greatest ever.

“I wore the yellow jersey 96 times. It is the best memory of my career. It still gives me goosebumps,” Merckx said during Tuesday’s presentation of the Grand Depart – the opening weekend of the three-week Tour.

Merckx also won a record 34 Tour stages and is among four riders who won the Tour a record five times. French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain are the others.

Tour organizers said it will be the second time the race will set off from the Belgian capital, which hosted the race’s Grand Depart in 1958.

The 2019 race will also mark 100 years since the race leader’s yellow jersey was created.

When it comes to the first two stages on July 6-7, the iconic Wall of Geraardsbergen climb should take center stage.

The 192-kilometer (119-mile) first stage of the Tour will have the Wall, for decades the toughest climb in the Ronde of Flanders classic. The Wall will come early but the stage, which makes a big loop south of Brussels, is still set up for a sprint finish close to the royal palace.

It will also have its stretch of famed Flemish cobblestones and will pass through the hometown of soccer player Eden Hazard.

The second stage will be a 28-kilometer team time trial through the Belgian capital along its wide-open boulevards. The riders will also pass by St. Pieters-Woluwe in suburban Brussels, where Merckx lived as a child and where he got to pull on his first yellow jersey.

From Brussels, it is an easy trek south into nearby France for the rest of the race.

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.”