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The final countdown to the 2018 Tour de France has begun, and with it comes Cyclingnews’ comprehensive look at the 21 stages that the 176 riders starting this year’s race will have to negotiate en route to the big finish in Paris. Starting in Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile in the Vendée on July 7, this year’s stages include a 35.5km team time trial around Cholet on stage 3 – a discipline that is often a very strong indicator of a team’s collective strength for the entire Tour – and a tough conclusion to the end of stage 6 with the climb of the Mûr-de-Bretagne, which last featured at the Tour in 2015, when AG2R's Alexis Vuillermoz took the stage win ahead of Dan Martin. Stage 9 – on the day of the FIFA World Cup final – mimics the one-day Classic Paris-Roubaix, with its treacherous cobbled sectors, and the stage 17 mountain stage that, at just 65km long, should also provide fireworks – especially as the Tour will experiment with a unique start grid whereby the riders will set off together, but in order of the overall standings at that point in the race.ADVERTISEMENT There are three summit finishes – one of those being the legendary Alpe d’Huez, which returns to the race on stage 12 after a three-year absence – and two downhill finishes, at Le Grand Bornand on stage 10 and Bagnères-de-Luchon on stage 16, which can often be as much of an undoing for some riders as the challenge of the climbs. Alpe d'Huez makes a return to the race for the first time since 2015, when Thibaut Pinot, who will miss this year's Tour, won the stage.
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Rigoberto Urán came to the Tour of Slovenia with the Tour de France in mind, his EF Education First-Drapac team having added the five-day 2.1 race to the calendar as a late addition to bridge the gap to the Tour de France, which starts a week later this year. The plan worked out to perfection, with Urán taking a stage 3 win in Celje and backing it up with 15th in the final time trial to seal second overall. Stage 4 winner Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) won the final time trial and the overall. “I’m happy,” Uran said in a statement released by his team. “The most important for me is the Tour, but before the Tour, I have good legs to finish second, win a stage in Slovenia and also do a good time trial today. I’m so happy to know everything is where it needs to be.”ADVERTISEMENT Urán's win on stage 3 from Slovenske Konjice to Celje came with an attack on the final climb that swept up late leaders Roglic and Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), with the Colombian able to out-kick Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) at the line for the stage win. Urán finished fifth on the Queen stage won by Roglic on Saturday, and he held his ground well against the other GC contenders during Sunday's time trial, clocking a faster time than all but two of the riders in the general classification top 10. “Everything went well in the time trial,” said EF Education First-Drapac director Ken Vanmarcke. “Rigo was never in trouble and could pace the way he wanted. His main goal is in three weeks, not today, and this week was a perfect preparation.
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Ilness forced Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to change his calendar in the run-up to the Tour de France, skipping the nine-day Tour de Suisse for the more low-key Route d'Occitanie, where the Spaniard made the most of his re-tooled schedule by taking a stage win and the overall at the four-day French race. "We must still remain happy, because after all, we won the overall classification," Valverde said in a statement released by his team. "That's a confirmation I did things right for the past month, even if I missed the Tour de Suisse due to illness. I feel like the whole team, as well as myself, did a brilliant job. The goals were more than accomplished - we came here just with a will to get ready for July and, after that, seeking for some wins, and we achieved both."ADVERTISEMENT Valverde, who raced last at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April, finished seventh on the first day of Route d'Occitanie, a 168km relatively flat stage won by Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) in a bunch sprint. He finished in the bunch the following day, which also concluded with a bunch sprint, allowing him to reserve some energy for his winning stage 3 effort.  On Saturday, Valverde beat Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) and Kenny Elissonde (Team Sky) to the top of the fog-shrouded summit finish at Les Monts d'Olmes, taking the overall lead by 14 seconds over Navarro and 20 seconds over Elissonde. Not content to rest on his lead during Sunday's final stage - 192.7km from Mirepoix to Cazouls-lès-Béziers - Valverde hit out again with Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) with 68km remaining after the peloton swept up day’s early break.
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Alejandro Valverde clocked up his 10th victory of 2018 when he emerged first from the mist atop Les Monts d’Olmes to claim stage 3 of the Route d’Occitanie, but the Spaniard downplayed his prospects of leading Movistar’s Tour de France challenge next month. Valverde is set to line up alongside Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana in a star-studded Tour selection, but despite his remarkable form, the 38-year-old suggested that his role in that triumvirate would primarily be a supporting one. “We’ll go there with other objectives since we’re going to be working for Landa and Nairo,” Valverde told when asked if he could win the 2018 Tour.ADVERTISEMENT Valverde’s best displays at the Tour have come in the period since he served a ban following his implication in the Operacion Puerto blood doping inquiry. He placed third overall in 2015, 4th in in 2014 and rode strongly in the service of Quintana two years ago while helping himself to 6th place in Paris. A year ago, Valverde’s Tour ended prematurely when he crashed out during the opening time trial in Dusseldorf. That incident left Valverde with a fractured kneecap, but he returned to action at the start of the 2018 season and was immediately back to his best, winning a stage and the overall at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. He proceeded to rack up nine wins during the Spring, though he was denied a fifth successive Flèche Wallonne triumph by Julian Alaphilippe and then could only manage 13th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Valverde had not raced since the Ardennes Classics as he throttled back in preparation for the Tour, and his performance on the queen stage of the Tour d’Occitanie – formerly the Route du Sud – indicated that he will be a force to be reckoned with at the Tour next month.
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