Rescheduled Tour de France hoping to make nation smile again

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PARIS — With the Tour de France pushed back to a late August start, race director Christian Prudhomme is hoping cycling’s showcase event can help bring back a sense of normality to a nation reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

Organizers on Wednesday announced new dates of Aug. 29-Sept. 20 for the race, a day after it was postponed. And Prudhomme is still optimistic that the three-week event will be able to feature its usual scenes of thousands of fans packed along the route each day.

“Lots of people smiling, getting back to the lives we love,” Prudhomme told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “Usually we like to complain and moan about things. Then, when they’re gone we realize what we’re missing. The Tour de France will likely be the first big sporting event of 2020. So there will be fervor and enthusiasm.”

Prudhomme said organizers opted against having the start in early August, saying it was wiser to push back “as far away as possible from the pandemic” in the hope that social distancing restrictions will have eased.

While there is a big gaping hole in the global sporting calendar for the coming months, the schedule in France is suddenly looking very busy.

The start of the Tour in Nice overlaps with the end of the European Athletics Championships, which are still set to be held in Paris from Aug. 25-30. The Tour then ends on Paris’ famed Champs-Elysees avenue on the same day the rescheduled French Open tennis tournament starts a few miles away at Roland Garros.

“A magnificent Indian Summer,” Prudhomme said.

A cooler one than Tour riders are used to, as well. The temperatures in September aren’t likely to be as hot as in July, meaning riders may have a bit more energy on those tough mountain climbs.

“Of course that’s totally possible, because in mid-September there won’t be a heatwave up in the Alps,” Prudhomme said.

The Tour was set to start on June 27, but those plans were scrapped on Tuesday because of coronavirus restrictions. The International Cycling Union announced the Tour’s new dates on Wednesday. It also said the Giro d’Italia and the Spanish Vuelta, cycling’s two other Grand Tours, will take place after the French race.

“The Tour has never started later than July 13 since (it began) in 1903,” Prudhomme said.

British rider Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion, said it’s crucial for cycling that its flagship event is able to take place.

“A big reason why a lot of the teams are in the sport is because of the Tour, because of the coverage you get from it, it’s so big,” Thomas told the AP. “The fact that it’s got a good chance of going ahead is great news.”

The UCI also announced that the dates for the world championships will still take place Sept. 20-27. That will be followed by the Giro, initially scheduled for May, and the Spanish Vuelta, which is also owned by ASO and had been set to run from Aug. 14-Sept. 6.

No official new dates have been given for those two races.

All the prestigious one-day road classics, including the Paris-Roubaix over the cobblestones, the Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Milan-San Remo, will go ahead but dates are yet to be decided.

“I’m really happy to finally have a calendar,” said French cyclist Julian Alaphilippe, who led last year’s Tour for long spells before finishing fifth. “It’s a light at the end of the tunnel, which is something good for the morale in times like these … It gives you an extra boost to work harder in order to be fit for when the moment will come.”

Prudhomme said riders will need two months to prepare for the Tour, including one or two races warm-up races. The postponed Criterium du Dauphine could move to early August and be shortened from eight days to five or six, he said, with extra climbs to prepare riders for the Tour.

Racing without fans lining the roads and mountain passes of France is an option which has prompted debate, and will continue to do so while distancing requirements are still in place.

“Of course we’ll respect the guidelines from the health minister,” Prudhomme said. “Logic states that there will be less people on the roads during that period, less tourists, less children on school holidays.”

Postponing the initial Tour dates became inevitable when French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Monday that all public events with large crowds would be canceled until at least mid-July. He extended France’s lockdown to at least May 11.

The race draws in hundreds of riders and team staff from around the world. Borders would have to be open so racers like last year’s winner – Colombian rider Egan Bernal – can take part.

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.”