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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.

Ewan wins Stage 8; Conti keeps pink jersey in Giro

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PESARO, Italy (AP) Caleb Ewan of Australia sprinted to victory on the eighth and longest stage of the Giro d’Italia on Saturday, while Italian cyclist Valerio Conti remained the overall leader.

Ewan, who rides for Lotto-Soudal, edged Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann in a bunch sprint at the end of the 239-kilometer (149-mile) leg from Tortoreto Lido to Pesaro.

Conti, who has worn the pink jersey since finishing second on Thursday’s sixth stage, remained one minute, 32 seconds ahead of Jose Rojas and 1:41 ahead of Giovanni Carboni.

Sunday’s ninth stage is the only time the Giro crosses into another country as it visits the republic of San Marino briefly for the uphill finish of the 35-kilometer time trial.

That could mark the start of the real fight for overall victory, as every second lost will be tough to pull back when the race heads into the mountains.

The Giro finishes in Verona on June 2.

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Pogacar wins Stage 6 of Tour of California to take lead

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ONTARIO, Calif. — UAE Team Emirates began its week at the Tour of California by sending home one of its riders upon learning that his name had surfaced in a European investigation into doping in cycling.

The team appears set to end it with the overall race lead.

Tadej Pogacar reeled in several top contenders on Friday’s final climb to Mt. Baldy, then matched every attack thrown down by Sergio Higuita. That allowed him to reach the finish line first and take not only the sixth stage but also the lead in the general classification with just a day of racing to go.

In the women’s race, American climber Katie Hall surged in the final couple kilometers up Mt. Baldy before holding off teammate Anna van der Breggen for the stage win. Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio was third.

Van der Breggen retained the overall lead by 29 seconds over Hall, the defending race winner.

UAE Team Emirates has ridden this week without Kristijan Durasek, who was caught up in the Austrian doping probe. But it hardly mattered for Pogacar, who stayed out of trouble during the earlier stages and was in fourth place and 16 seconds adrift of Tejay van Garderen entering Friday’s stage.

Van Garderen’s team tried to pace him to the top, but the 2013 race winner cracked before some of his EF-Education First teammates. Gianni Mascon of Team Ineos, who had been third, also dropped off the brutal pace up the steep Mt. Baldy climb, throwing the race wide open.

George Bennett tried to join the fray in the closing kilometer, but he was unable to make up the ground on Pogacar and Higuita, making it a true duel to the finish line.

Higuita led the way heading to the final corner, but the diminutive Colombian swung low and took a better line, allowing him to pull ahead and sprint clear for the victory.

He now leads by 16 seconds ahead of Higuita with Kasper Asgreen in third.

Several riders in the women’s race tried to attack on the tough climb of Mt. Baldy, too, and Omer Shapira was the first to offer a truly dangerous move. Hall soon followed with about 2+ kilometers (1 + miles) to go, and van der Breggen soon bridged to make a trio of riders at the front.

Shapira was unable to keep up with Hall and van der Breggen, the reigning world champion. That left the two Boels-Dolmans riders to duel on the final kilometer to the summit, and Hall made the pass within sight of the finish line to snag the stage victory.

The final stage Saturday takes the men and women 126 kilometers (78 miles) from Santa Clarita to Pasadena, but both overall leaders will be expected to protect their jerseys before the finish at the Rose Bowl.