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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.

Hermans wins Tour of Utah with strong ride in final stage

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) Ben Hermans finished near the front once more in the final stage of the Tour of Utah on Sunday, allowing him to wrap up the overall title after taking second in the week-long race a year ago.

Joe Dombrowski won the finale, an 83-mile trek that began and ended in Park City, with 24 seconds to spare over a chase group led by Joao Almeida. Herman and Keegan Swirbul were another two seconds back with James Piccoli, one of the main instigators all week, rounding out the top five.

The finish was enough to give Hermans, riding for the Israel Cycling Academy, a 50-second margin over Piccoli with Dombrowski another 42 seconds back in third place.

The 33-year-old Hermans has experienced something of a rejuvenation this season. He won a stage and the overall at the Tour of Austria before taking the second and third stages in Utah.

“It’s really amazing,” the Belgian said. “I’ve been fourth, second last year, and to win – finally first. I really enjoy it here. It’s amazing to ride for these crowds and to be there on the podium in the yellow jersey is really, really nice.”

Travis McCabe won the white jersey awarded to the race’s top sprinter. Piccolli was crowned most aggressive rider, Almeida was top young rider and Hayden McCormick won the mountains classification.

Italian cycling great Felice Gimondi dies at age 76

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ROME == Felice Gimondi, one of only seven cyclists to have won all three Grand Tours, has died. He was 76.

The Italian Cycling Federation (FCI) said efforts to resuscitate Gimondi failed after the Italian suffered a heart attack while swimming on vacation in Sicily on Friday and died the same day.

Gimondi won the Tour de France in 1965 as a 22-year-old in his first year as a professional. He went on to win the Giro d’Italia in 1967, 1969 and 1976, and the Spanish Vuelta in 1968.

“Felice was one of the greatest champions to win great tours, a world championship and important classics while contesting, he alone, Eddy Merckx,” FCI president Renato Di Rocco said. “A great man who marked an era. Italian cycling mourns the passing of one of its pillars.”

Five-time Tour de France winner Merckx told Italian news agency ANSA, “A man like Gimondi is not born every day. With him goes a piece of my life. He was among the greatest ever.”

The other cyclists to win all three Grand Tours are Belgian rider Merckx, Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault of France, Alberto Contador of Spain, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy and Britain’s Chris Froome.