Ten riders to watch at Tour de France

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Ten riders to watch at the 104th Tour de France, whose every stage will air live from start to finish on NBC Sports Gold’s Cycling Pass:

Chris Froome
Team Sky/Great Britain
2013, 2015, 2016 Tour de France winner

Trying to move within one Tour title of the career record of five shared by Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Froome has been the anchor of cycling’s most powerful team for five seasons now. Every time the rail-thin Brit has reached the Champs-Élysées in that time, he has been wearing the yellow jersey. The only miss was when he abandoned on Stage 5 in 2014 after crashing three times in two days.

But Froome went winless in his Tour lead up this season for the first time since 2012. Plus, this year’s route does not suit his strengths, with just two summit finishes and no extended time trials.

Richie Porte
Fifth at 2016 Tour de France

Froome has called Porte his main rival this year, though that may be in part because they were Team Sky mates through 2015. Porte is in his second season as BMC’s general classification rider. Last year, his Tour GC hopes were punctured by a flat tire on Stage 2, where he lost 1 minute, 45 seconds. Porte ended up fifth.

This season, Porte won the Tour de Romandie and was second at the Criterium du Dauphine, both stage races with Froome in the field, plus the Tour Down Under.

Nairo Quintana
Three Tour de France GC podiums

Every year that Froome has won the Tour, he has been joined on the Paris podium by Quintana. The Colombian has gone from 23-year-old upstart in 2013 (second at his first Tour) to trail blazer in the sport. He is a Tour de France title from becoming the first non-European to claim all three Grand Tours.

This is the first time Quintana rides the Tour de France having already done the Giro d’Italia in the same season. How will he recover? The lack of time trial mileage will help the climber.

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Alberto Contador
Tour de France winner in 2007, 2009

El Pistolero returns for what could be his final Tour. Contador, now 34, would be the oldest Tour winner since 1922. But that’s looking unlikely. He failed to finish in 2014 and 2016 and has not made a Grand Tour podium in more than two years. Contador was also 11th at the Criterium du Dauphine.

Romain Bardet
AG2R La Mondiale/France
2016 Tour de France runner-up

The latest French hope to end the nation’s longest Tour title drought — now 32 years since Hinault’s last win in 1985. Bardet, who at 26 is younger than Froome, Porte, Quintana and Contador, was second to Froome last year after a gutsy Stage 19 win moved him up from fifth.

This season, Bardet was sixth at the Criterium du Dauphine, after being runner-up the year before. In comments before the Tour, he downplayed his chances to win, perhaps hoping to keep the French pressure to manageable levels.

Alejandro Valverde
Third at 2015 Tour de France

Valverde has been competing in Grand Tours since 2002 and, last year, rode all three for the first time with a worst finish of 12th. Not bad for a man who turned 37 in April. Though Valverde is on the outside of the top GC contenders here, he should be very present in helping team leader Quintana.

Peter Sagan
Five-time Tour de France green jersey winner

One of the sport’s great, unique personalities. He demolishes handfuls of gummy bears immediately after races. Sagan can match Erik Zabel‘s record of six points classification titles that go to the best sprinter. In 2016, he won three stages and was named the Tour’s Most Combative Rider. At just 27 years old, there’s no reason to think he won’t eventually hold the mark to himself.

Mark Cavendish
Dimension Data/Great Britain
30 Tour de France stage wins

It was thought the Manx Missile might be losing steam after winning one stage between the 2014 and 2015 Tours (he abandoned the 2014 Tour after the first stage) and changing teams before the 2016 edition. But Cavendish roared back with four stage victories last year, including wearing the yellow jersey for the first time. He followed that with a long-awaited, first Olympic medal on the track in Rio. Now, he is four stage wins behind the career Tour record of 34 held by Merckx. However, Cavendish considers himself fortunate to even be starting an 11th straight Tour after being diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus in April.

Taylor Phinney
Cannondale–Drapac/United States
First Tour start

What a winding road Phinney, the son of Olympic cycling medalists, took to his Tour debut at age 27. First, he was a phenom on the track, winning individual pursuit world titles at ages 18 and 19. He later found road success, placing fourth in both 2012 Olympic events and taking silver in the 2012 World time trial. But injuries kept Phinney from sustaining that run. He missed 15 months in 2014-15 with a broken tibia, broken patella, a severed patella tendon and a ruptured PCL from hitting a guard rail at the U.S. Championships.

Andrew Talansky
Cannondale–Drapac/United States
2013 Tour de France — 10th place

There are three Americans among the 198 riders in this year’s Tour. That matches the smallest U.S. contingent in the last 20 years. Talansky is the only one of the trio with Tour experience and the only one with hopes of decent placement in the general classification. In 2013, he was 10th at his first Tour, then 11th in 2015. Last year, Talansky passed on the Tour to focus on the Vuelta a Espana, where he was fifth. No doubt Talansky will be expected to better the top U.S. result from the 2016 Tour, Tejay van Garderen‘s 29th, which marked the worst American high finish since 1996.

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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