Mark Cavendish returning to Tour de France after 3-year absence

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BRUSSELS — Veteran sprinter Mark Cavendish will make a return to the Tour de France after a three-year absence from cycling’s biggest event.

Cavendish was not expected to be among the eight riders selected by Deceuninck-Quick-Step but was a last-minute inclusion following Sam Bennett’s withdrawal.

The three-week race starts on Saturday in Brittany from the port city of Brest.

The 36-year-old Cavendish has won 30 Tour de France stages, putting him second on the all-time list behind Belgian great Eddy Merckx. However, he last won a stage in 2016.

He also won the best sprinter’s green jersey in 2011, a coveted prize that Bennett claimed last year.

“Obviously, the circumstances with Sam could be better – he had a special Tour last year and I am sad for him not being able to defend his green jersey,” Cavendish said. “But at the same time, I am excited to be going back to a race that I have such an affinity with and where I have so much history.

“I am going to do all I can to grab this opportunity with both hands.”

Cavendish has struggled in recent years, even taking a break from cycling after being diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus for the second time in 2018. He has enjoyed a resurgence this season, posting five wins after returning to Deceuninck-Quick-Step for 2021.

Bennett was forced to withdraw because of a right knee injury.

“I had a very minor incident during training a couple of weeks ago, which affected my knee,” Bennett said. “While the injury I sustained is very short term, it impacted my training for the biggest bike race in the world all too much and left me without enough time to be race fit.”

World champion Julian Alaphilippe, who wore the yellow jersey for 14 days two years ago, will lead the squad. Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen was also included alongside Davide Ballerini, Mattia Cattaneo, Tim Declercq, Dries Devenyns and Michael Morkov.

“Mark returns to the Tour, and it’s great to have someone with his history and experience on the team. He will have a superb lead out with Ballerini and Morkov,” Deceuninck-Quick-Step sports director Tom Steels said.

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.”