Tadej Pogačar’s Tour title defense on track with Tirreno victory

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SAN BENEDETTO DEL TRONTO, Italy — Two stage races. Two overall victories.

Tadej Pogacar is preparing perfectly to defend his Tour de France title.

The Slovenian won the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico race by a comfortable margin ahead of a stellar field Tuesday, adding to his title in the UAE Tour last month.

“What a fantastic start to the season,” Pogacar said. “This is one of the biggest one-week races.”

After placing fourth in the concluding time trial, Pogacar finished 1 minute, 3 seconds ahead of Wout van Aert in the overall standings of the sea-to-sea race.

Mikel Landa finished third overall, 3:57 behind. Egan Bernal, the 2019 Tour winner, finished fourth, more than 4 minutes behind Pogacar.

The 22-year-old Pogacar won one stage in both the UAE Tour and the Tirreno, having taken Saturday’s “queen” leg that finished with a grueling climb to Prati di Tivo.

Pogacar also gained time against all of his overall rivals in Sunday’s fifth stage, which featured a circuit over a series of short climbs or “walls,” when he nearly caught breakaway rider Mathieu van der Poel.

“Stage 5 in the cold, wet weather. That’s the stage I will never forget,” said Pogacar, who rides for UAE Team Emirates.

Van Aert, who rides for the Jumbo-Visma team, won the time trial for his second stage win of the race.

Van Aert clocked 11:06 along the entirely flat 10.1-kilometer (6.3-mile) route in San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic coast. European champion Stefan Kung finished second, six seconds behind, and world champion Filippo Ganna was third, 11 seconds behind – ending his winning streak in time trials at eight.

“I’m improving in this discipline every year a little bit,” van Aert said. “It was my first time aiming for GC in a stage race and I only got beaten by the Tour de France winner. I’ll try more of this in the future but for now I have the classics in my mind, starting with Milano-Sanremo.”

Pogacar finished one second behind Ganna in the stage.

Up next on the World Tour calendar is the Milan-San Remo classic, although Pogacar is not entering that race. He’ll next compete in the Tour of the Basque Country in April, followed by the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege single-day races.

“But first,” he said, “I want to rest a little bit.”

The multi-talented van Aert also won the opening stage in a sprint. He’ll be looking to defend his Milan-San Remo title.

“I felt really good this week and I saw last year that I really improved my form afterward,” the Belgian rider said. “Now I’ve got to recover as good as possible.

“But I saw a lot of strong riders this week,” van Aert added, “so I’m definitely not the only favorite.”

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.”