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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.

Geraint Thomas blowing in the wind at Tour de France

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ALBI, France — Geraint Thomas and his teammates don’t need a mountain to deliver a hammer blow on their rivals at the Tour de France.

They can do it on the flat, too. With a little help from the wind.

The defending champion was the big winner of a chaotic Stage 10 in southern France on Monday when French rival Thibaut Pinot and other title contenders were caught napping by a treacherous combination of winds and narrow roads.

Unable to all ride at the front, Pinot and other riders got left behind when the winds first stretched and then shattered the peloton into groups over 35 frantic final kilometers (20 miles) of a 217.5-kilometer (135-mile) trek from Saint-Flour to Albi in south-central France.

Perfectly positioned at the front when the pack took different routes around a traffic circle, triggering the first split, Thomas and his Ineos teammates put pedal to the metal to make the gap on Pinot and other contenders caught behind as big as possible.

The bill for the French podium finisher in 2104, as well as Rigoberto Uran, Jakob Fuglsang, and Richie Porte was costly. They rode in a whopping 1 minute, 40 seconds behind Thomas.

“At the start we said at some point this race is going to split,” explained Luke Rowe, one of Thomas’ teammates. “We were all over it with numbers at the front.”

Once opened, the gap increased speedily, with yellow jersey-holder Julian Alaphilippe and Ineos riders setting a frenetic tempo until the end.

“We were straight on the front foot, we knew it was on us to drive it to the line,” Rowe said. “I was saying to the guys, `This is a TTT (team time trial) all the way to the finish line.”‘

Tour de France rookie Wout Van Aert won the stage with a sprint to the line. But Thomas was the headline act.

“I couldn’t think of anything better,” Thomas said. “It’s especially good on a day like today when you never expect it. It was just a positioning error from them and they lose a minute and a half. That’s how it goes.”

Ahead of big Pyrenean stages this week, Thomas vaulted to second place overall, 1:12 behind Alaphilippe, with teammate Egan Bernal in third place, four seconds further back.

After a flawless start to the race, it was Pinot’s first mistake, and a big one. Looking to become the first Frenchman to win the race since Bernard Hinault in 1985, he dropped from third to 11th overall, 2:33 behind Alaphilipple and 1:21 behind Thomas, perhaps not fatal to his Tour but a huge setback.

Pinot used an expletive to describe his day.

“What do you want me to say? There’s nothing to say,” he said, looking absolutely disgusted.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was almost as disappointed.

“He was ideally placed in the Tour and to be trapped like that in the last 35 kilometers of the stage before the rest day is sad for him,” he said. “It’s a lot of time lost.”

The peloton split into three groups on a long but narrow section of road opened to the wind when Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck Quick Step teammates sped up the pace at the front to close the gap to six breakaway riders. The fugitives were reeled in with 25 kilometers (15 miles) left before Thomas and Co., working well with Alaphilippe’s team, pushed harder in an impressive display of collective strength.

“It’s not only in the mountains where you can gain time, we have a strong team for days like today, too, and that’s what we showed,” Thomas’ teammate Dylan van Baarle, said.

Enjoying another day in yellow, Alaphilippe said he and his teammates were thinking about placing Elia Viviani for the finish-line sprint when they accelerated, not deliberately trying to hurt Pinot.

“We didn’t plan to split the bunch. We only expected the stage to be nervous and tricky. Our intention was only to protect my yellow jersey and to focus on a sprint,” he said. “We knew precisely at which kilometer there was a risk of crosswinds. All teams gave the same instructions. There was a lot of stress and pressure in the peloton and when it split, everyone expected it, then we did the maximum.”

A three-time cyclo-cross world champion starting to live up to his billing as a future star, Van Aert is riding his first Grand Tour.

“The last 70 kilometers were very nervous,” he said after edging Viviani by just a few inches. Australian Caleb Ewan placed third.

Van Aert surged from the left in the last stretch and resisted Viviani’s comeback by throwing his bike at the line.

The up and coming Belgian said he got the OK from his team bosses to race for the win because his team leaders were trapped in the group behind. But even then he didn’t expect to beat recognized sprinters such as Viviani and Peter Sagan in a photo finish.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Technology beating romanticism at Tour de France

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ALBI, France — With all the technology stacked against them, the six breakaway riders at the Tour de France had no hope of making it to the finish without being caught.

Race directors were watching their every move on TV screens set up in their cars, and rival competitors riding behind were informed in instant time of the gap through earpieces. It was a day for a bunch sprint, and it could not be any different.

At the Tour, long gone are the days when bold riders would launch long-range attacks and foil the sprinters at the finish line. The sport has changed so much in the space of 20 years that, on the many long and flat stages peppering the thee-week racing program, breakaways have nearly no chance of succeeding.

“A stage victory in the style of Jacky Durand or Thierry Marie? It’s nearly impossible on Grands Tours, and even more at the Tour de France,” Arkea Samsic team manager Emmanuel Hubert told The Associated Press.

Hubert, a former pro rider, mentioned Durand and Marie, two riders who epitomized the idea of panache. In the 1980s and ’90s, both were capable of launching long-range victorious rides that made them fan favorites.

Such long-haul trips still take place nowadays, but they are almost never rewarded.

Take the six who spent Monday at the front of the pack in the southwestern Aveyron region. If they had any hopes of reaching Albi ahead of the pack, they quickly found out their grand day out would not feature a happy ending.

There were four climbs on the day’s program, but the flat finale gave sprinters a golden opportunity to get a stage win. Tony Gallopin, Michael Schar, Natnael Berhane, Anthony Turgis, Mads Wurtz Schmidt and Odd Christian Eiking moved away from the pack soon after the start. With none of them a threat in the general classification, the peloton was happy to let them go.

But once their lead reached three minutes, the fugitives were kept on a tight leash, with sprinters’ teams speeding up the pace at the front of the pack to make sure they would not open a gap too difficult to bridge later in the stage.

A classic scenario then developed. Using all the data available to determine the right time to move, sprinters’ teams organized the chase about 50 kilometers from the finish to rein in the audacious group.

“There is so much at stake for the sprinters’ team,” Cofidis manager Alain Deloeil told the AP. “For them it’s nearly a professional mistake if, on a flat stage, they don’t bring back the breakaway. They need to set up a sprint for their fast man.”

These scenarios, which also affect racing in the mountains, are a real problem for organizers who need to maintain the excitement over a three-week period. At a closed-door meeting before the race started, Tour director Christian Prudhomme urged riders to be more audacious in their strategies after a somewhat boring start to the race last year.

Deloeil and Prudhomme are nostalgic for an era when ear pieces and power meters were words still to be invented. They believe riders don’t use their instinct anymore, with their eyes glued to screens determining whether they should attack or chase down fugitives.

Team Ineos, the former Team Sky, often relies on data from power meters – the small devices fitted to riders’ bikes measuring their power output – when tackling climbs. It’s a strategy that produced five Tour victories with three different riders since 2012.

Prudhomme would like to see restrictions on power meters.

“Riders should not have permanent access to their data,” Prudhomme told the AP. “In days gone by, Fausto Coppi used to attack Gino Bartali when he noticed the little blue vein coming out on his rival’s leg. It was a sign that Bartali was getting tired. And Bernard Hinault waited until Joop Zoetemelk’s leg moved aside, because it meant he was tired. And that was the moment Bernard chose to attack.”

According to Prudhomme, banning power meters would add a refreshing dose of romanticism to a sport heavily relying on data.

“If riders could not read their power meters, there would be more emotions,” he said. “But obviously the biggest teams don’t want that.”

Stephane Rossetto, a Tour rookie who twice tried his luck over the past 10 days in long unsuccessful breakaways, said many competitors are too conservative in their approach.

“That’s modern cycling, and we need to adapt,” the 32-year-old said. “Many riders are just looking at their power meter and don’t go beyond a certain limit. And with ear pieces, we get the gaps in real time. There is not much room for surprise. Me, I never look at my power meter.”

Luke Rowe, a teammate of defending champion Geraint Thomas at Ineos, hit back at Prudhomme’s remarks.

“He is living in the Stone Age with comments like that,” Rowe said. “I can tell you, from a guy who spends a lot of time riding on the front, you don’t ride on power. You ride on feel, you ride on who is in the break, how far ahead they are, on wind direction, terrain. You take all these factors into consideration to see how you are going to ride. You don’t stare at power meters.”

Boosting Rowe’s case, it was the good positioning of Ineos riders at the front of the pack – and not technology – that allowed them to gain around 100 seconds on three dangerous rivals when crosswinds played havoc in the finale of Monday stage.