Yuzuru Hanyu
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Is Yuzuru Hanyu beatable? World Championships men’s preview

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BOSTON — This edition of the World Figure Skating Championships could be billed as the greatest three-man competition in 28 years. Except one skater is in a class of his own.

Three different men’s World champions from the last three years will go head-to-head-to-head at Worlds for the first time since 1988 this week in Boston.

There is defending champ Javier Fernandez of Spain. There is three-time World champion Patrick Chan of Canada, at his first Worlds since his last title in 2013.

And then there is the man who deserves his own paragraph, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, the Olympic and World champion of 2014.

Three men from three continents, but one is the clear gold-medal favorite.

“There’s definitely people that can take the title from Yuzu,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said, “but at this point it’s definitely his to lose.”

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Hanyu, a 21-year-old who trains in Toronto under 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser (one of that 1988 Worlds trio), had actually been beaten in four of his last five top-level international competitions going into November.

But he soared at his next two fall events, shattering Chan’s 2013 record for most points in the decade-old judging system (by a whopping 27.13) at NHK Trophy in Japan. And bettering that by another 8.03 at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where he distanced second-place Fernandez by 37.48 points.

“When he skates well and clean, it is untouchable,” NBC Olympics analyst Tara Lipinski said. “But we’ve seen Yuzu fall apart or make several mistakes or get sloppy.”

Like in his last two defeats.

Chan outscored Hanyu in both programs at Skate Canada in October, in the Canadian’s first top-level competition since taking double silver at the Sochi Olympics. Hanyu stood sixth in the short program after receiving zero points for two of his three jumping passes, then fell on a triple Lutz in the free skate.

At last year’s Worlds, Fernandez became the first Spaniard to take the title. Hanyu fell on his lone quadruple jump attempt in the free skate, as Fernandez overtook him in Shanghai.

And in Hanyu’s last competition, the Japanese Championships on Christmas weekend, he fell three times over two programs (but still won by 19.21).

“He isn’t faultless,” Weir said. “It would definitely take a real disaster of a performance for him not to be the front-runner, not to have that victory almost assured. But if he is a little bit off, Patrick Chan and Javier Fernandez both showed really stong performances at the Europeans [in January] and Four Continents [Championships in February].”

True. In their aforementioned most recent competitions, Fernandez put down his highest-scoring short program ever (a total bettered only by Hanyu under this system), and Chan recorded his best free skate ever (again, bettered only by Hanyu in this decade).

Soon but unlikely this week, Hanyu, Fernandez and Chan could be rivaled by a pair of 18-year-olds for gold.

China’s Jin Boyang landed six quads at the Four Continents Championships, finishing second to Chan.

Japan’s Shoma Uno, the reigning World junior champ, arrived on the senior stage by beating Fernandez and Chan at the free skate-only Japan Open exhibition in October. Then he kept Chan off the podium at the Grand Prix Final in December.

“Jin Boyang in particular, he’s got the technical firepower, but the artistry, no matter how well he jumps, his artistry is what brings him off the podium,” Weir said. “Shoma Uno is wonderful technically and artistically. It’s going to be about controlling his nerves and keeping it all together.”

A medal is not expected from the U.S. contingent of national champion Adam RipponMax Aaron and Worlds rookie Grant Hochstein. In Rippon and Aaron’s five combined Worlds appearances, the best finish was Rippon’s sixth in 2010.

Rippon has backed off from February hopes of adding a quadruple toe loop or a quadruple Salchow to his quadruple Lutz. He said after practice Monday at TD Garden that he plans only the Lutz and only in the free skate.

Rippon, still the only man to win back-to-back World junior titles (2008 and 2009), is strong in other areas such as spins. But even he recognized the void when asked what one thing he would take from Hanyu, Fernandez or Chan’s bags of tricks.

“I would take their quads,” he said. “But I hope that if I took it, they wouldn’t have it back.”

The key for the U.S. men will be the number 13. If the top two U.S. men’s placements this week add up to greater than 13, the U.S. will downsize from three men to two for the 2017 World Championships.

That means that one of Rippon, Aaron and Hochstein must finish sixth or better to have any shot at meeting a combined 13.

“A big ask,” Weir said. “If everyone skates their best … that really puts the United States men looking at a top-10 finish almost as if it would be like winning a medal.”

Here are Lipinski and Weir’s medal predictions from last week:

Lipinski
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Fernandez (ESP)
Bronze: Chan (CAN) or Uno (JPN)

Weir
Gold: Hanyu (JPN)
Silver: Chan (CAN)
Bronze: Fernandez (ESP)

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Simone Biles, her name sparkling, extends 6-year win streak

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Simone Biles has long stood out for her gymnastics, but on Saturday she competed with her last name sparkling in silver beads on her World Champions Centre leotard for the first time. The gym’s other athletes had “WCC” on the back.

Biles lived up to the billing, extending her six-year win streak to 19 straight all-arounds, capturing the U.S. Classic, a tune-up for next month’s U.S. Championships.

Biles, the four-time Rio Olympic champion, scored 60 points in Louisville at the meet where she made her comeback last year after nearly two years off from competition. She prevailed by a comfortable 2.1 points over Riley McCusker, her largest margin of victory of her four U.S. Classic titles.

“I’m very satisfied,” she said on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA. “I’m a little sad that I went out of bounds on floor [exercise], but overall I feel like there are improvements to be made.”

Full results are here.

Biles is prepping for nationals in Kansas City in three weeks, when she eyes a sixth U.S. all-around title to tie Clara Schroth Lomady‘s record from the AAU era in the 1940s and ’50s.

Then come the world championships in October in Stuttgart, Germany. Biles could win a fifth all-around to move one shy of Kohei Uchimura‘s record.

The world’s other top gymnasts may be her countrywomen.

Biles was outscored on balance beam on Saturday by 2018 World teammates Kara Eaker and McCusker and beaten on uneven bars by 2017 World all-around champion Morgan HurdSunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and McCusker. Biles swept all the gold medals at last year’s nationals.

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Geraint Thomas struggles; Julian Alaphilippe ups Tour de France lead

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LA MONGIE, France (AP) — When the team of Geraint Thomas was in its pomp at the Tour de France, a time trial followed by a big mountain stage would have been playgrounds for Sky — now in new colors as Ineos — to take cycling’s greatest race by the scruff of the neck and leave everyone else fighting for second place.

Not this year.

Thomas, the defending champion, cracked on Saturday on the Tour’s first encounter with a climb to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), exposing unprecedented weaknesses in his team that has won six Tours in the past seven years.

The time trial on Friday and the climb up to the legendary Tourmalet pass on Saturday seemed primed for Thomas to reel in Julian Alaphilippe, the yellow jersey-holder from France who is setting the Tour alight with his punchy riding and determination to keep the race lead, filling French fans’ heads with dreams of a first homegrown winner since 1985.

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But instead, Thomas has seen Alaphilippe only get further and further away. In two days, the Frenchman has put 50 seconds of extra daylight between him and the Welshman. His lead — up to 2 minutes, 2 seconds — is becoming large enough to start realistically envisioning Alaphilippe in yellow in Paris next weekend as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault.

Fueling the ecstasy of delirious crowds that lined Saturday’s steep uphill finish, French rider Thibaut Pinot won Stage 14, putting him back in the picture to fight for the podium after he lost mountains of time on Stage 10.

Thomas rightly pointed out that the Tour is far from done, with six more ascents to above 2,000 meters still to come.

But his inability to stay with Pinot, Alaphilippe and other title contenders at the top of the Tourmalet — he was eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot — was a mini-earthquake for the Tour dominated by his British team since 2012 — with champions Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and, in 2018, Thomas.

“Not the best day. I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak,” Thomas said.

“At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked. I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”

Having taken cycling to a new level since 2012 with its vast budget and attention to the minutest of details, the team run by David Brailsford has been hit both by misfortune and by the inevitability that, eventually, other teams would start to close the gap.

A horror crash in training for four-time winner Froome, now recovering from career-threatening broken bones, robbed the team of its ace. Thomas’ own preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour of Switzerland last month.

And Egan Bernal, being groomed by Brailsford to succeed Froome and Thomas, looks increasingly unable to compete for the title this year. Bernal was fifth on the Tourmalet and is fourth overall, 3 minutes behind Alaphilippe.

Pinot, now sixth overall and 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, is showing remarkable grit in bouncing back from his Stage 10 misfortune, when he was part of a group that got separated from other title contenders in crosswinds.

“I have this rage inside me, because in my opinion it was an injustice,” said Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014.

“Since the start of the Tour I had this stage in the back of my mind. The Tourmalet, it’s mythical,” said Pinot, who has three career stage wins at the Tour.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on hand at the top of the Tourmalet to see Pinot win and Alaphilippe extend his lead, gushed about the “two fantastic riders.”

“They attack and they have heart,” Macron said.

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