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With Froome absent, Quintana favored to win Spanish Vuelta

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BARCELONA, Spain — Chris Froome’s decision not to defend his Spanish Vuelta title and fitness concerns for other top cyclists leaves Nairo Quintana in position to claim the Grand Tour for a second time.

Quintana beat Froome to win the Vuelta in 2016 but the Colombian climber has struggled to carry that and other successes over to the Tour de France.

Last month, Quintana finished the Tour in a disappointing 10th place. He he was knocked out of contention on the first day of the race after he broke both his wheels and lost a significant amount of time.

But fortune permitting, the 73rd edition of the Vuelta, which starts on Saturday, should be Quintana’s for the taking.

Quintana did win one mountain stage at the Tour but he will need to avoid mechanical mishaps and hold his own on the Vuelta’s two individual time trials to take the overall victory.

“We need to do well because we had prepared well for the Tour and yet due to one thing or another it didn’t go our way,” Quintana said on Thursday. “Whenever they say we are favorites… we have to show that we are on the road.”

The 28-year-old Quintana also won the Giro d’Italia in 2014.

His Movistar squad includes 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde, who could still be an option to lead the team at the age of 38 if Quintana falters.

Here is a look at the riders and the course for the 2018 Vuelta:

NO FROOME, THOMAS FOR SKY

After winning the last four Grand Tours, Froome’s Team Sky appears ready to let its rivals fight for victory at the Vuelta, which will start in the southern city of Malaga.

Froome and current Tour champion Geraint Thomas are not on the Sky squad for the Spanish race and instead will participate in the eight-stage Tour of Britain starting on Sept. 2.

In place of Froome and Thomas, Sky will be led by Michal Kwiatkowski and David de la Cruz.

BANGED UP BUNCH

Top riders Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), Richie Porte (BMC) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) are all racing in Spain after being forced to withdraw from the Tour because of crashes.

Porte broke his collarbone on Stage 9, when Uran sustained injuries to his left arm and leg that eventually led to him withdrawing on Stage 12. Nibali also had to quit on Stage 12 after he fractured a vertebra while climbing the Alpe d’Huez.

A top-notch climber and expert in descending, Nibali’s first Grand Tour victory came at the Vuelta in 2010. He went on to win the Giro twice and the Tour. But given Nibali’s bruised back, Bahrain Merida has named Ion Izagirre as its leader.

“I have been training for about only a couple of weeks and for this reason I think it will be very difficult to aim for the general classification,” Nibali said. “I will see day by day and I hope to be able to do well in some mountain stages anyway.”

Other riders to watch are UAE Emirates pair Fabio Aru, who won the Vuelta in 2015, and Dan Martin.

An outside challenger could be Steven Kruijswijk, a Dutch rider for LottoNL-Jumbo who finished fifth at the Tour.

THE COURSE: MADE FOR CLIMBERS

This year’s race will feature two individual time trials, a short 8-kilometer (4.9-mile) time trial on Stage 1 and a 32-kilometer ride from Santillana de Mar to Torrelavega on the northern coast on Stage 16.

But the real focus will be on the mountains, with nine stages concluding in summit finishes.

The Vuelta organizers saved the most demanding route for the race’s 20th and penultimate day, when the peloton will face a short but explosive 97.3-kilometer ride in the Pyrenees. The stage in Andorra features six categorized climbs culminating in the beyond-category Coll de la Gallina summit.

Egan Bernal wins Paris-Nice race after lively final stage

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NICE, France (AP) Team Sky rider Egan Bernal won the Paris-Nice weeklong race for his most prestigious title so far after resisting a bold offensive from fellow Colombian Nairo Quintana in Sunday’s final stage.

Quintana secured a second-placed finish after Spain’s Ion Izagirre won the eighth stage on the “Promenade des Anglais” along the Mediterranean Sea.

The 22-year-old Bernal, one of the most promising riders of his generation, moved into the overall lead after Saturday’s penultimate stage at the summit of the Col de Turini.

Quintana’s efforts nearly paid off but the climber had to be content with a runner-up finish, 39 seconds behind Bernal. Michal Kwiatkowski, who also rides for Team Sky, completed the podium.

Quintana made his move on the Cote de Peille and led a group of 12 riders at the top of the climb. Quintana had a 55-second lead over Bernal at some point but a lack of cooperation within the breakaway group in the descent to Nice proved costly for the former Giro and Vuelta champion.

Izagirre secured the stage’s win by dropping his breakaway companions in the finale.

Bernal secured a sixth victory in seven years for Team Sky in Paris-Nice.

Peter Sagan to start Tour of California

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LOS ANGELES — Three-time world champion Peter Sagan and former Tour of California champion George Bennett will be at the start line when the most prestigious cycling race in the U.S. begins May 12.

Race organizers announced the men’s and women’s teams and some of their riders Thursday.

Sagan will be back to lead BORA-hansgrohe while adding to his record 16 stage wins, while former overall winner Tejay van Garderen will be back with EF Education First Pro Cycling. Other stars set to compete include Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and Rohan Dennis.

Olympic gold medalist and world champion Anna Van der Breggen and reigning race champ Katie Hall will be back to headline the women’s race, which begins May 16.

Both races will end May 18 in Pasadena.