With Yates’ win at Vuelta, British domination is complete

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PARIS — When Lance Armstrong won the last of his seven Tour de France titles back in 2005, there was not a single British rider on the starting line. The face of cycling has dramatically changed since, with Armstrong erased from the records books for doping and British cycling now ruling the Grands Tours.

Simon Yates capped a fantastic year for British riders on Sunday by winning the Spanish Vuelta, completing a clean sweep of cycling’s biggest races for the country following the successes of Chris Froome at the Giro d’Italia and Geraint Thomas at the Tour de France.

It is the first time in cycling history that each of the three titles have been held by three riders from the same nation.

“It’s astonishing really. Growing up I was so accustomed to seeing the French, Italian and Spanish riders lead the way, so for myself, Chris and Geraint to all win a Grand Tour in the same year just shows how far the sport has come in this country,” the 26-year-old Yates said. “It has not happened by accident.”

Like Thomas, Yates is a pure product of British cycling, having joined the country’s renowned academy program when he was 18 years old. At the time, Britain had already started its cycling revolution under the helm of coaches Dave Brailsford and Peter Keen, who masterminded the rise of homegrown talents, on both the track and the road.

The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona were a milestone in British cycling history. In Spain, Chris Boardman, who was coached by Keen, won the gold medal in the individual pursuit, Britain’s first cycling gold medal in 72 years. From 1997-2004, Keen was in charge of the elite performance program of the British cycling federation and developed a plan focusing on track cycling to attract funding from the National Lottery, which had just started to invest millions of dollars into British sport federations.

“Britain has invested heavily in lower ranks,” said Brailsford, who runs Team Sky. “It does not happen overnight.”

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Jason Queally won the gold medal in the 1-kilometer time trial and the harvest of track medals expanded in Athens and Beijing under Brailsford’s leadership. But successes on the road remained scarce despite the emergence of a talented generation of riders including Mark Cavendish and Thomas, who developed their skills through the academy program run by Rod Ellingworth.

In 2009, Bradley Wiggins achieved a fourth-place finish at the Tour – he was later awarded third place after Armstrong’s disqualification – while riding for Garmin. He became an obvious choice for the newly-created Team Sky that Brailsford helped to create and then managed, and was recruited as the team’s leader. With his “marginal gains” philosophy and unmatched budget, Brailsford produced the first British Tour de France winner in 2012 with Wiggins, just a year after Cavendish became world champion at the road race championships.

Success has not stopped since.

“There were no British winners in any of the first 259 Grand Tours, yet following Yates’s victory in Madrid this weekend a British rider has now been victorious in nine of the last 20,” read a British Cycling statement after Yates won the Vuelta.

This year’s British dominance has, however, been met with skepticism outside the country after Froome returned an abnormal doping test at last year’s Vuelta. Froome was cleared to compete at the Tour de France just days before the race started but was subjected to abuse by some fans on the roads of France, repeatedly spat at and even punched.

Thomas was also booed and jeered this year because he rides for Team Sky, which has been accused by a British parliamentary committee of crossing an “ethical line” after preaching zero tolerance and is now often associated with doping. In March, the British legislators said they received evidence showing Team Sky sought a therapeutic use exemption for Wiggins to take a banned corticosteroid to enhance his performance while preparing to win the 2012 Tour.

Yates, who competes for the Mitchelton-Scott team, was suspended for four months for non-intentional doping two years ago after testing positive for a banned substance during Paris-Nice. He had been treated for asthma, but his team failed to apply for a therapeutic use exemption.

Tour de France: Five key stages

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PARIS — With seven mountain stages and five summit finishes, including three above 2,000 meters, this year’s Tour de France is the highest in the history of the race.

The route for the 106th edition of the thee-week marquee event offers only a few moments of respite. The first mountain test will come after just five days of racing, and contenders won’t be able to hide their tactics for long.

Also, there is only 54 kilometers against the clock, split between one team time trial and an individual time trial, meaning a pure climber has a good chance to triumph in Paris on July 28.

Here is a look at five key stages that could define the race dynamics.

STAGE 6: Mulhouse to La Planche Des Belles Filles, 160.5 kilometers, July 11.

Introduced to the Tour in 2012, the Planche des Belles Filles ascent immediately became a classic.

Set up in the Vosges mountains, it is steep, tortuous and brutal, featuring a 20 percent gradient at the top. Chris Froome, who is missing the Tour this year because of an injury, mastered the Planche in 2012 and Vincenzo Nibali triumphed at the summit in 2014, the year he won the Tour.

The final ascent comes after several other climbs including the Markstein, the Ballon d’Alsace and the Col des Chevreres, meaning the pack should be reduced to a small bunch of general classification contenders in the last few kilometers.

STAGE 13: Pau, individual time trial, 27.2 kilometers, July 19

The only individual time trial of this year’s Tour is taking place on a rolling terrain and features an uphill stretch of road with a seven percent gradient. A good chance for overall contenders to gain valuable time on the pure climbers before the race ventures into the high mountains.

The winner of the stage will receive a special collector’s shirt marking the 100th anniversary of the yellow jersey.

STAGE 15: Limoux to Foix Prat d’Albis, 185 kilometers, July 21

Coming right after Stage 14 to the famed Col du Tourmalet – the first of three finishes over 2,000 meters this year – the last Pyrenean trek running close to the ancient Cathar castles is a grueling and daunting ride totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing. The final ascent of the day leading to the finish at Prat d’Albis is an 11.8-kilometer climb at an average of 6.9 percent. The Tour’s “Queen Stage.”

STAGE 19: Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne to Tignes, 126.5 kilometers, July 26

At 2,770 meters, the Iseran mountain in the Alps is a Tour de France giant, and one of the highest road passes in Europe where thin air makes things harder for the peloton.

Tour riders will tackle it for the eighth time in the history of the race, from its tougher south side, before a final 7.4-kilometer uphill effort to Tignes ski resort. The last kilometer is rather flat and seems ideal for a sprint between the best climbers.

STAGE 20: Albertville to Val Thorens, 130 kilometers, July 27

In their bid to maintain suspense right up until the end, Tour organizers have set up an ideal stage for a final showdown in the Alps.

On the eve of a final processional stage to Paris, yellow jersey contenders will be taking on each other on a royal battleground featuring three climbs and technical downhills. Capping the highest Tour in the race history, the final climb to the ski station of Val Thorens, at an altitude of 2,365 meters, is more than 33 kilometers, at an average gradient of 5.5 percent. Good luck with that!

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Egan Bernal set to impress at unpredictable Tour de France

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PARIS — Egan Bernal is just 22 years old. Two years younger than Eddy Merckx was when the Belgian great won his first Tour de France half a century ago.

Gifted with superb bike handling and climbing skills, Bernal has matured by leaps and bounds to become cycling’s most exciting Grand Tour rider, and one of the top contenders at cycling’s marquee three-week race, which starts this weekend from Belgium.

Even Merckx, who has seen myriads of riders trying to emulate his feat over the years, has been impressed. In March, the five-time winner tipped Bernal as a future Tour champion after the Colombian phenomenon won the prestigious Paris-Nice one-week race at a younger age than he did.

Bernal’s time to deliver on the biggest stage was not supposed to come so early, though.

After competing at his first Tour last summer and doing an impressive job in support of teammates Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, Bernal was set to get a maiden leader experience at a three-week race at the Giro d’Italia this Spring. But a training crash left him with a collarbone fracture that ruled him out of the race and left him on the sidelines for 76 days.

Bernal returned to competition with a bang, winning the Tour de Suisse at the end of June.

For all his prowess, he was set to keep a low profile this summer and to ride in support of Froome. But the British star rider suffered a horrific crash at the Criterium du Dauphine that ended both his hopes of winning a record-equaling fifth Tour title, and season.

With Froome out of the picture, the leadership at Ineos – the former Sky team -logically fell to Thomas, the defending Tour champion. But Thomas’ preparations for the Tour have been far from ideal. He has not won a race this season and, even worse, abandoned the Tour de Suisse this month after crashing before the race hit the mountains, meaning he did not test his legs at high altitude in racing conditions.

Bernal keeps saying he will race in support of Thomas but, as was shown last year when Froome accepted to work for Thomas, hierarchy within the Ineos squad is defined by performances on the road.

“I don’t choose to say that I’m the favorite,” Bernal said after his victory in Switzerland. “In any case, I will go with G (Thomas), he will be our leader. I will try to help him. If he’s better than me, for sure I will help him. I don’t have any problems to help him. I’m just 22 years old, so I think that I have a lot of Tours in front of me.”

With Bernal touted as cycling’s future star, it is fitting that the Tour starts in Brussels to mark the 50th anniversary of the first of Merckx’s five Tour victories.

The route features five summit finishes, including three stages finishing above 2,000 meters, and only 54 kilometers of time trialing. That perfectly suits Bernal’s qualities. A natural-born climber, he has developed into an all-rounder capable of limiting time losses to minimum damage in the race against the clock.

The 3,480-kilometer (2,145-mile) race begins with a flat stage for sprinters around the city of Brussels and stays there the next day for a 27-kilometer (17-mile) team time trial. After leaving Belgium, the Tour snakes through the Champagne and Lorraine regions before a first mountain test at the Planche des Belles Filles, in Alsace.

This year’s best bits include Stage 14 on July 20 that features a climb up the Tourmalet pass – one of the most famed in Tour history – and three days of Alpine climbing on stages 18-20. There is an ascent up the leg-breaking Galibier and imposing Iseran – standing 2,770 meters (9,100 feet) – and a relentless 33.4-kilometer (20.7-mile) trek up to the ski resort of Val Thorens.

“This year we often go higher than 2,000 meters,” race director Christian Prudhomme told The Associated Press. “Because we are also celebrating the centenary of the yellow jersey. This jersey embodies excellency; it is pushing toward higher height.”

After years of Team Sky’s total dominance, the narrative of the race is likely to change. Ineos remains the strongest squad, with experienced riders including Wout Poels, Gianni Moscon and Michal Kwiatkowski, but Froome’s absence, coupled with the withdrawal of last year’s runner-up Tom Dumoulin, has reshuffled the game and produced a long list of top contenders.

Among them, two-time Dauphine winner Jakob Fuglsang has big expectations on the back of an already successful season. Runner-up at the Giro, Vincenzo Nibali chases a fifth Grand Tour win and Adam Yates will try to trade the white jersey of best young rider he won in 2016 with a yellow tunic. France has also good chances of getting its first homegrown Tour winner since 1985 with Romain Bardet or Thibaut Pinot. To sum it up, this Tour has the potential to produce fireworks, not only on Bastille Day.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.