2018 Tour de France: Main contenders

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TOUR 2018: A look at the main contenders for the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday in the Vendee region:

CHRIS FROOME

Age: 33

Froome is the undisputed favorite to triumph for a record-tying fifth time after being cleared of doping by the International Cycling Union on Monday.

The Kenyan-born British rider is aiming to join the elite group of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only cyclists who have won cycling’s biggest race five times.

Froome enters the three-week trek on the best winning run of his career.

After his dominant performance to win a fourth Tour last summer, Froome won both the Spanish Vuelta in September and Giro d’Italia in May. That made him only the third rider to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time and the first to achieve the feat since the Vuelta was moved to the end of the season in 1995.

Main assets: Confidence and experience of a proven champion, skills for the high mountains and time trials, and strong support from Team Sky.

Question marks: How is Froome’s stamina holding up after his crash-marred Giro victory and the doping case, which led to months of debate?

NAIRO QUINTANA

Age: 28

A winner of the Vuelta and the Giro, Quintana has planned his season around winning the elusive Tour.

The Colombian scaled back his competition schedule this year and did not compete in the Giro to give him fresher legs at the Tour after he finished a disappointing 12th last year, his worst showing in his five entries in the race.

Quintana twice finished runner-up behind Froome in 2013 and 2015.

He is aiming to become just the eighth rider ever to win all three Grand Tours.

Main assets: An elite climber, on-par with Froome when at his best, he will be backed by a very strong Movistar team that includes Mikel Landa and veteran Alejandro Valverde.

Questions marks: Can he build a big enough lead before the individual time trial in the penultimate stage, given his weakness in races against the clock compared to Froome and other rivals? Or if he falters early, will Movistar shift its hopes to Landa or Valverde?

TOM DUMOULIN

Age: 27

Dumoulin won the 2016 Giro and finished second behind Froome in the Italian race this year.

The Dutch rider won two stages of the 2016 Tour, and came agonizingly close to winning the Vuelta in 2015.

Main assets: A powerful rider who excels in time trials as well as rugged terrain.

Questions marks: Although he has improved in the mountains, will he be able to challenge Froome and the other world-class climbers when it matters? Will he get enough help from Team Sunweb to hang with powerhouses Sky and Movistar?

VINCENZO NIBALI

Age: 33

The only man to win the Tour besides Froome over the past five years, Nibali is also the only other former champion to ride this year.

He joins Froome in that exclusive group of riders who have won the Tour, Vuelta and Giro in their careers.

The Italian won the Milano-San Remo classic in March but skipped the Giro to prepare for what could be his last realistic opportunity to repeat his 2014 Tour win.

Main assets: A champion’s pedigree on every kind of terrain, proven climbing credentials and excellent downhill skills.

Question marks: Does he still have the strength to topple Froome? Can his Bahrain-Merida team give him the support he will surely need?

ROMAIN BARDET

Age: 27

France’s hopes to end a 33-year-long wait for a homegrown Tour champion rest on Bardet.

He has finished on the podium for the last two Tours and won stages in the race in each of the last three editions.

Main assets: Climbing skills and attacking attitude.

Question marks: Can he improve in the individual time trial after struggling last year? And how well will Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale team hold up on the first team time trial at the Tour after a three-year absence?

Giro d’Italia to start in Hungary next year

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — The Giro d’Italia will start in Hungary next year.

The prelude stage will take place in Budapest, followed by two further stages on Hungarian soil.

Giro d’Italia organizers made the announcement on Tuesday at the Italian Cultural Institute in Budapest.

It will be the Grand Tour’s 14th start outside of Italy, with the most recent being in Israel last year.

This year’s Giro d’Italia will begin in Bologna on May 11 and conclude in Verona on June 2.

Gilbert beats Politt to win Paris-Roubaix

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ROUBAIX, France — Veteran cyclist Philippe Gilbert beat German rider Nils Politt right at the end of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix race to win it for the first time.

Gilbert strategically placed himself behind the 24-year-old Politt, and then attacked him down the left to win by about a length after nearly six hours of riding. Belgian rider Yves Lampaert finished in third.

The race is one of cycling’s five high-profile classics, along with the Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia. The 36-year-old Gilbert, a former world road race champion, has won all except Milan-San Remo.

“I still have this dream to win all them. Little by little I’m getting there,” an elated Gilbert said afterward. “Politt’s very courageous. In the end the best rider won, and thankfully it was me.”

Last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Peter Sagan joined Gilbert and Politt near the front with about 20 kilometers left. But Sagan dropped off, leaving Gilbert and Politt to contest victory as they reached the Roubaix velodrome in northern France.

Paris-Roubaix is known as the Queen of the Classics because it is the most prestigious of the five, which are otherwise known as “monuments” of cycling.

But the grueling and dangerous 257-kilometer trek is also known as the “Hell of the North,” because of its treacherous profile including more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) of cobblestones spread out over 29 sectors.

“A lot of people said cobblestones aren’t for me. But I’ve won Tour of Flanders and now I’ve won here,” Gilbert said. “I rode a good race tactically.”

Belgian cyclist Tiesj Benoot crashed into the back of a Jumbo-Visma team car near the end of Sunday’s race, smashing the back window completely. He was taken to hospital but his injuries were not immediately known.

Last year’s Paris-Roubaix was overshadowed by the death of Belgian rider Michael Goolaerts, following a crash.