Caleb Ewan

Geraint Thomas crashes, recovers; other pre-Tour de France favorite out in Stage 16

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NIMES, France (AP) — Crashing is becoming a bad habit for defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas.

After hitting the ground twice over the past two weeks, the Welshman fell off his bike one more time on Tuesday as a heat wave engulfed the race ahead of grueling days in the Alps when the Tour will reach its climax.

Once again, Thomas was lucky enough to escape with bruises and scratches, but the timing of his crash in the rural hinterland of the antique Roman city of Nimes was unfortunate. Although Thomas quickly got back on his bike and did not lose time, crashes always have a lingering effect on riders’ bodies. It’s generally after 48 hours that the soreness reaches its peak, and that’s when he will be fighting in high altitude with rivals trying to take him off his perch.

Lagging 1 minute, 35 seconds behind race leader Julian Alaphilippe with the race now going into its five last stages, Thomas was caught off guard under a scorching sun about 40 kilometers into the stage won by Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan.

The peloton was not riding at full speed, but Thomas was surprised.

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“I just had one hand on the bars, and the gears jumped and jammed and I got thrown off my bike on a corner,” he said. “I knew the race wasn’t on so I just got back into the group. It’s just frustrating. It was such a freak thing.”

Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang, who stood ninth overall, was not as lucky and was forced to abandon the Tour with a left hand injury after falling late in the stage as the peloton pedaled past the picturesque town of Uzes.

Thomas, a former track specialist who transformed into a Tour de France contender after years spent working in support of four-time champion Chris Froome, has always been prone to crashing. Just last month, his preparation for the Tour was cut short by a spill during a race in Switzerland.

But he has also shown in the past that he can soldier on in pain. Six years ago when riding the Tour as Froome’s loyal teammate, Thomas fell off his bike on a Corsican road in the opening stage and broke his pelvis. But he kept racing for 3,000 kilometers to reach the finish.

He will need to be at the top of his form on Thursday for the start of an Alpine trilogy of stages including six climbs over 2,000 meters. This is when the race — the most exciting in the last decade — will be decided before Sunday’s ceremonial ride to Paris.

Sixteen stages out of 21 have been completed, but the suspense remains intact, with six riders separated by little more than 2 minutes. Behind Alaphilippe and Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk remained third, 1:47 off the pace and 3 seconds ahead of Thibaut Pinot. Thomas’ Ineos teammate Egan Bernal lags 2:02 behind and Emmanuel Buchmann has a 2:14 deficit.

Bernal, a Colombian and one of the best pure climbers in the Tour, played down Thomas’ crash and said the race in the Alps will suit him more than the Pyrenees, where both Ineos leaders conceded time to Pinot.

“He crashed but with no consequence and I don’t think he’ll suffer from it in the coming days,” Bernal said. “We’re approaching the Alps. The climbs there are longer and steeper. They’re more of the Colombian style of climbing. I’m ready and I feel good.”

Ewan said he suffered from the heat throughout the stage — temperatures soared as high as 40 degrees Celsius (40 F) — but it did not slow him down in the finale. The Australian Tour debutant edged Elia Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen to post his second stage win following his maiden success in Toulouse last week.

Earlier, riders tried to cool down with bottles of cold water against the backs of their necks as they pedaled on the Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge set against a dramatic landscape of rocks, trees and water. Alexis Gougeard, Lukasz Wisniowski, Stephane Rossetto, Paul Ourselin and Lars Bak organized the day’s breakaway and had a maximum lead of 2 minutes.

After the group was caught two kilometers from the finish, Viviani was set up by his teammates and launched the sprint about 200 meters from the line but could not resist Ewan’s comeback.

“To be honest, I felt so bad today during the day. I think the heat really got to me,” Ewan said. “I was really suffering but I had extra motivation today because my daughter and wife are here. I’m so happy I could win for them.”

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Caleb Ewan posts first Tour de France stage win, Julian Alaphilippe keeps yellow

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TOULOUSE, France (AP) — A bit more than a year ago, Caleb Ewan was devastated to be left out of the Tour de France.

The Australian sprinter had to watch cycling’s biggest race on TV after finding out at the last minute that his Mitchelton-Scott team was placing all its bets on Adam Yates in the fight for the yellow jersey, and would leave Ewan at home.

A year later, Ewan earned his first Tour victory by edging a close sprint on Stage 11 in Toulouse on Wednesday.

“I was ready for the Tour three of four years ago, I always wanted to go straight to the top races,” said Ewan, whose daughter was born just before the race started. “I’ve been held back, I finally got my chance.”

Ewan switched teams to Lotto-Soudal this season to replace veteran German sprinter Andre Greipel, and the ambitious youngster was, at last, promoted to a team leader role this summer in France.

But the pressure was big on Ewan, a winner of 36 professional races — including stages at the Spanish Vuelta and Giro d’Italia.

After coming close in previous stages with three third-place finishes and a runner-up spot, he finally delivered by edging one of the peloton’s fastest men. The 25-year-old Australian beat fellow sprinter Dylan Groenewegen by a tire’s width and was awarded the victory after photo finish. Elia Viviani placed third ahead of three-time world champion Peter Sagan.

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Ewan perfectly timed his effort after Groenewegen launched his effort on the left side of the road. Ewan took the wheel of his Dutch rival and pipped him to the line.

“It was super hectic,” said Ewan, who has now completed wins at all three Grands Tours. “I ended up in Groenewegen’s wheel coming out of that corner. It’s a hard thing being with Dylan and I knew it was not going to be easy to beat him. I felt I should let him get a bit of a gap so I could sprint in his slipstream, and I could pass him quite quick. I’m happy that this time I was a few centimeters ahead of him.”

The win also made up for having to leave Australia just after the birth of his daughter Lily. He thanked his wife for letting him go and compete in France in such circumstances.

“She let me come here and leave my young baby in hospital,” Ewan said. “It’s the hardest thing I had to do, to come here to race and leave my daughter in hospital.”

With the race heading into the Pyrenees over the next four stages, the main favorites did not take any risks Wednesday and there were no significant changes in the overall standings. Frenchman Julian Alaphillipe kept the yellow jersey, 1 minute, 12 seconds ahead of defending champion Geraint Thomas. Thomas’ teammate Egan Bernal, the Ineos co-leader, remained in third place, a further four seconds behind.

“I’ve prepared myself for attacks to take place, whether from the favorites or other riders who want to gain time,” Alaphilippe said.

The coming days could be crucial in determining the next Tour champion. Following Thursday’s stage and its two first-category climbs, Thomas — an excellent time-trial specialist — will have a chance to gain time on his rivals in the only individual race against the clock this year.

Then it will be time for the grueling ascent of the Tourmalet —the first of three finishes over 2,000 meters this year — and a final Pyrenean stage totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing.

“There are five big days to come, but we are up for it,” Thomas said. “Obviously, we’d love to be closer to Alaphilippe, but we are ahead the traditional GC (general classification) guys. It’s hard to see how Alaphilippe will go, but Egan and I are in quite a good place. By the second rest day we will know more about who are our rivals.”

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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