Julian Alaphilippe puts on a show to win back-to-back world titles

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LEUVEN, Belgium — Julian Alaphilippe confirmed his reputation as one of cycling’s greatest showmen with another bold display of attacking flair that helped him win a second straight gold medal at the road world championship.

On a challenging course, the 29-year-old Frenchman relentlessly attacked and made his decisive move on a sharp climb to escape from a breakaway group with 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) to go.

Alaphilippe then took all the risks in the technical bends and short downhills scattered across the finale to retain the world champion’s rainbow jersey he claimed last year in Italy.

Alaphilippe ruined the Belgian fans’ hopes of seeing hot favorite Wout van Aert winning on home soil and received a few boos as he dashed toward the finish line. A few insults were also hurled his way.

“Many fans were rooting for Belgium and van Aert, they asked me to slow down,” said Alaphilippe. “Some of their words were not always very nice. I want to thank them because it made me want to push even harder.”

Dutch rider Dylan Van Baarle finished runner-up, 32 seconds off the pace, ahead of Michael Valgren of Denmark.

The 268.3-kilometer course starting in Antwerp and finishing in Leuven took riders across the cycling-mad Flanders region of Belgium, with thousands of fans lining the roads. The route switched multiple times between two circuits featuring a myriad of punchy short climbs and several cobbled sectors suiting one-day classics specialists.

The Belgians were the pre-race favorites with a team featuring the versatile van Aert and rising star Remco Evenepoel alongside experienced all-rounders used to the attritional classic races held in Belgium every year.

Known as “The Tractor” for his huge power input, Belgian Tim Declercq and teammate Yves Lampaert prepared the ground for van Aert, taking turns at the front in a bid to create splits and drop as many rivals as possible. The strategy paid off as a long list of top riders pulled out and the main pack was reduced to 17 contenders in the finale.

The race was marred by a crash involving a trio of top riders in its early stages when Matteo Trentin of Italy, former world champion Mads Pedersen and Italian Davide Ballerini hit the ground with 186 kilometers left. Pedersen was looking behind his back to call his team car when Ballerini and Trentin collided and could not avoid their crash.

The three riders were all able to resume racing but later abandoned.

Quite unexpectedly, the French animated the race with more than 180 kilometers left, with successive attacks by Anthony Turgis and Benoit Cosnefroy that opened a gap and forced their Italian rivals to dig deep in their physical resources to organize the chase.

German Nils Politt later went on the attack and caused another split as a group of 11 riders from 11 different nations, including Evenepoel and van Baarle, moved away. Behind, van Aert and Alaphilippe pushed hard to close the gap before the final ascent of the tough Smeysberg hill.

Alaphilippe attacked near the summit and went away with Italian sprinter Sonny Colbrelli.

The Frenchman’s efforts were not immediately fruitful, though, as Colbrelli could not provide assistance. Determined to avoid a sprint finish, Alaphilippe attacked again with 21 kilometers left but his rivals kept a close eye on him and responded with ease. He made a similar move a few kilometers later, and this time it paid off.

“At some point I told him to follow attacks and to counter, he did the opposite,” France coach Thomas Voeckler said. “He went on the attack on his own several times. He let his instinct speak.”

Thomas sees Giro d’Italia lead cut slightly by Roglič; Buitrago wins Stage 19

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TRE CIME DI LAVAREDO, Italy — Geraint Thomas maintained his bid to become the oldest Giro d’Italia champion although his lead was cut slightly by Primož Roglič during the toughest stage of the race.

Roglič crossed the summit finish of the so-called “Queen Stage” three seconds ahead of Thomas at the end of the race’s final mountain road leg.

There were no flat sections and five tough, classified climbs on the 114-mile route from Longarone to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, which had gradients of up to 18%.

Stage 19 was won by Santiago Buitrago, who finished 51 seconds ahead of Derek Gee and 1 minute, 46 seconds ahead of Magnus Cort and Roglič, who just missed out on bonus seconds.

“I’m really happy with this victory. It was the most difficult moment of a difficult Giro for me personally,” said Buitrago, who rides for Bahrain Victorious. “I wanted to try and raise my arms before the end and coming here at Tre Cime di Lavaredo is amazing.

“This is the recompense for all the work that I’ve done. … There’s a lot of motivation for me and the whole team having seen the fruits of our labors.”

The 37-year-old Thomas, who rides for Ineos Grenadiers, is 26 seconds ahead of Roglič going into what will be a decisive penultimate stage

Third-placed João Almeida lost more time and was 59 seconds behind Thomas.

Roglič changed his bicycle shortly before the start of the penultimate climb and he made his move inside the final kilometer. However, Thomas was able to stick to his wheel and the British cyclist made his own attack in the final 500 meters and looked to have slightly distanced his rival.

But Roglič came back and gained what could be a vital few seconds.

The winner will likely be decided in the mountain time trial that ends in a demanding climb up Monte Lussari, with an elevation of over 3,000 feet and gradients of up to 22%.

“Tomorrow we go full again,” Roglič said. “It’s good. We got a bit of legs back, so tomorrow we go full, eh?

“If I wouldn’t be confident then I don’t start. The best one at the end wins.”

The race ends in a mostly ceremonial finish in Rome, where Thomas could beat the age record held by Fiorenzo Magni, who was 34 when he won in 1955.

Thomas celebrates 37th birthday by retaining Giro d’Italia lead; Roglic into 2nd

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VAL DI ZOLDO, Italy — Geraint Thomas celebrated his 37th birthday with another strong ride in the mountains to retain the pink jersey during Stage 18 of the Giro d’Italia.

Thomas crossed immediately behind Primoz Roglic, who moved up from third place to second.

“The legs have been good,” Thomas said. “Need to enjoy these moments.”

Joao Almeida dropped from second to third overall after losing 21 seconds over the 100-mile route from Oderzo to Val di Zoldo, which included two first-category climbs followed by two second-category climbs in the finale – including an uphill finish.

Thomas – the 2018 Tour de France champion – leads Roglic by 29 seconds and Almeida by 39 seconds.

“It’s a pleasant day. I take time on Almeida and didn’t get dropped by Primoz,” Thomas said. “I felt pretty good, always under control but Primoz obviously went hard. It wasn’t easy. … I just want to be consistent until the end.”

Italian champion Filippo Zanna won the stage ahead of fellow breakaway rider Thibaut Pinot in a two-man sprint.

With only two more climbing stages remaining before the mostly ceremonial finish in Rome, Thomas is poised to become the oldest Giro winner in history – beating the record of Fiorenzo Magni, who was 34 when he won in 1955.

Chris Horner holds the record for oldest Grand Tour champion, set when he won the Spanish Vuelta in 2013 at 41.

However, Thomas will still be tested over the next two days.

Stage 19 is considered perhaps the race’s toughest, a 114-mile leg from Longarone to Tre Cime Di Lavaredo featuring five major climbs. Then there’s a mountain time trial.