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.

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”