Evenepoel clinches Vuelta title to become Grand Tour winner

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Remco Evenepoel put some tough times behind him with the biggest win of his career.

Two years ago, he was flying off a bridge in a horrific crash that left him hospitalized for several days. A year ago, his loyalty to teammates was being questioned by a cycling great.

It was all forgotten as the 22-year-old Evenepoel from team Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl won the Spanish Vuelta for his first Grand Tour victory.

“It’s history for team, for my country, for myself,” Evenepoel said. “I think we can be really proud of what we did the last three weeks.”

It was a statement win for Evenepoel, who became the first Belgian to win a major three-week event since Johan De Muynck won the Giro d’Italia in 1978. It was also sweet redemption for his father, Patrick Evenepoel, who finished 113th of 114 riders in the Vuelta in 1993.

Evenepoel crossed the finish line one last time while wearing the leader’s red jersey in the celebratory final stage through the streets of the Spanish capital, then got a hug and a kiss from his partner before raising his bicycle overhead in front of his teammates.

“Now it really sinks in, it’s really official,” he said. “Already yesterday the emotions were quite high. We were actually there but we still had to finish the race safe and in a good way. We enjoyed as much as possible and now we can really enjoy.”

Colombian Juan Sebastian Molano of UAE Team Emirates won the closing Stage 21 in Madrid, ahead of Mads Pedersen and Pascal Akermann.

Evenepoel, who held the red jersey since taking the lead in Stage 6 and overcame a hard crash in the Stage 12, had secured the victory by holding off Enric Mas and the rest of his challengers in the last competitive stage.

Evenepoel ended 2 minutes, 2 seconds ahead of Mas of team Movistar. Another Spaniard was third, with Juan Ayuso finishing nearly five minutes off the lead with UAE Team Emirates.

Evenepoel didn’t have to worry about three-time defending champion Primoz Roglic, who had to retire because of injuries sustained in a crash near the end of Stage 16. Also not contending at the end was 2018 Vuelta winner Simon Yates, who was one of the many riders who had to withdraw during the race because of positive coronavirus tests.

For Evenepoel, it was about using his pedals to answer his doubters and critics, including Eddy Merckx, the Belgian great who had said last year that the youngster was unwilling to ride for his team.

Also last year, Evenepoel was flung into the barriers in Stage 17 of the Giro d’Italia, and the year before he survived a nasty crash in which he fell several meters (yards) off the side of a bridge and was hospitalized with a broken pelvis.

This year’s Vuelta marked an emotional farewell for veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, the 2009 champion, and Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali, the 2010 Vuelta winner. Both are set to retire and were greeted with a guard of honor by the other cyclists.

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.”