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Mary Lou Retton: Simone Biles needs Olympic gold to secure greatness

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The greatest gymnast Mary Lou Retton has ever seen is a wonder.

She has the power to get such height on the vault it seems as if she’s bungee jumping from the roof.

She has the energy to make the final tumbling pass of her boundary-pushing floor exercise – when most of her peers are breathless and counting the seconds until the music stops – as fresh as her first.

She has the poise to flip and swoop and turn on a 4-inch wide slab of wood 4-feet off the ground so fluidly it’s like an X Games version of ballet.

“The god-gifted ability of explosiveness and just her athleticism, you can’t teach that,” said Retton, the 1984 Olympic champion. “You cannot teach that. You can teach somebody to be a little bit more graceful. You can teach someone more skills, but you can’t teach that special unique quality that Simone has.”

Get ready to know Simone Biles. In her sport, the live-wire 19-year-old from Spring, Texas, enjoys first-name only status, the byproduct of a three-year run of dominance that includes 14 world championship medals with a record 10 golds and three all-around titles.

“We’re joking she should have to compete with the guys,” Retton said. “She’s so good. She pushes it. She’s just special.”

If still somewhat anonymous outside of the buzzing fans who inhabit the social-media driven gymternet. For all of the awe Biles inspires, the one thing – really the only thing – Biles lacks is that Olympic moment of triumph with the world – the whole world, not just part of it – watching.

“It’s that Olympic all-around gold medal, the Queen Bee, the most important,” Retton said. “Yeah I think she needs it as part of her repertoire.”

There is no denying Biles’ excellence. She could never turn another backflip and her spot in her sport’s pantheon would be secure. Yet to the general public, she remains somewhat unknown. It took her two world titles before Twitter would verify her. Her followers – currently in the 82,000 range – total just 10 percent of those who follow 2012 Olympic champion (and 2016 teammate) Gabby Douglas.

“It’s like you still need that one puzzle piece,” said 2004 Olympic champion Carly Patterson. “It’s just crazy. You really need to have that checkmark to be looked at as one of those tops. That’s what it seems like. Her career is incredible and you wonder if that creates so much pressure.”

Such is the fine line Biles, her family and longtime coach Aimee Boorman have been trying to walk in the run-up to Rio. While they have taken steps to maximize the potential a golden moment in Rio would provide – Biles turned professional last spring – they have also been careful in creating internal expectations focused more on the process than the end result.

“She could quit tomorrow and still be a world champion,” said Boorman, who coaches at the aptly named World Champions Centre, the state-of-the art training center/passion project the Biles family opened in suburban Houston last fall. “We tell her that if people want to put pressure on her to win the Olympics, that’s their pressure, not hers.”

For Biles, it’s not about her scores. Biles doesn’t pay much attention to them. It’s not about winning, maybe because every meet she has entered since the 2013 US championships has ended the same way: with Biles atop the podium ducking her head so the latest medal to her ever-growing collection can be draped around her neck.

It’s not even about her highly GIF-able routines either, the ones that leave her peers in awe. If Biles is being honest, she doesn’t even know the formal terms for some of the skills she does anyway.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, you did a …’ and I’m like, ‘I did a what?”‘ Biles said. “No, I flipped twice. I twisted twice. They go ‘it’s called a …’ and I’m like ‘Why do I need to know that? I just need to go and do that.”‘

While Biles is happy to talk about shopping, favorites pictures of junk food on Instagram and kidnapping Steph Curry‘s kids so she can babysit them (as she did on Monday after securing a spot on the five-woman team while easily winning the Olympic trials), she’s not interested in fangirling over herself.

“It hurts my head, but it’s fine because it’s something I do every day,” Biles said. “You can’t avoid the gymnastics questions.”

Particularly the most basic one. How?

“We all have skills I guess,” she said.

Maybe, but Biles somehow seems to have all of them.

The sport’s code of points – overhauled over a decade ago to get rid of the 10-point system in favor of one designed to great a higher risk/reward factor – forces its competitors to make a choice between aggression and precision. Biles is the rare gymnast who doesn’t have to choose. She can do both.

“If you made it look as easy as Simone, you’d be smiling too,” said former Olympic coach Bela Karolyi, whose wife Martha has turned the U.S. national team into the Harlem Globetrotters in leotards and ceiling-scraping hair buns. “There is no one to compare Simone to.”

On the final night of Olympic trials Sunday night Biles drilled her intricate Amanar vault and earned a 16.2, the highest of the meet on any event. The score included a 9.9 mark for execution, as close to perfection as the judges let things get these days. Her two-day total on vault of 32.200 was 1.3 points clear of runner-up MyKayla Skinner, the equivalent of a three-touchdown win in football.

There’s so much cushion between Biles and the rest of the world that even a fall or two like the one on beam Sunday night that briefly set her eyes ablaze – a miscue that would jeopardize the medal hopes of most – is basically no big deal. Not that it mattered to Biles. She’s spent the last three years setting a standard that is uniquely hers, which may be her most remarkable talent of all.

“Typically you can have an athlete that’s head and tails above the rest, they might rest on their laurels a little bit,” said seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller, a member of the 1996 U.S. team that won the country’s first team Olympic gold. “They might slide a little bit. She doesn’t. She’s at the top of her game every time.”

The ultimate stage awaits.

MORE: Analyzing the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team

2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France results for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:05
2. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — +:59
3. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:30
4. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +5:58
5. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
6. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +6:47
7. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:48
8. Rigberto Uran (COL) — +8:02
9. Adam Yates (GBR) — +9:25
10. Damiano Caruso (ITA) — +14:03
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +25:53
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +42:20
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +1:03:07
29. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:59:54
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:19:11
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 380 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 284
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 260
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 181
5. Wout van Aert (BEL) — 174

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 82 points
2. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:13
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:42:43
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:55:12
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:15:39

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TOUR DE FRANCE: TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage | Favorites, Predictions

Tadej Pogacar, Slovenia win Tour de France for the ages

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A Tour de France that almost didn’t happen ended up among the most exciting in the race’s 117-year history.

Tadej Pogacar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, rode into Paris on Sunday as the first man in more than 60 years to pedal in the yellow jersey for the first time on the final day of a Tour.

Let’s get the achievements out of the way: Pogacar is the first Slovenian to win the Tour, finishing with the other overall leaders behind stage winner Sam Bennett on the Champs-Elysees.

“Even if I would come second or last, it wouldn’t matter, it would be still nice to be here,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top. I cannot describe this feeling with the words.”

He is the second-youngest winner in race history, after Henri Cornet in 1904. (Cornet won after the first four finishers were disqualified for unspecified cheating. The 19-year-old Frenchman rode 21 miles with a flat tire during the last stage after spectators reportedly threw nails on the road.)

Pogacar is the first man to win a Tour in his debut since Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1983.

And he’s part of a historic one-two for Slovenia, a nation with the population of Houston.

Countryman Primoz Roglic, who wore the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks before ceding it after Saturday’s epic time trial, embraced Pogacar after a tearful defeat Saturday and again during Sunday’s stage.

Tasmanian Richie Porte, who moved from fourth place to third on Saturday, made his first Tour podium in his 10th start, a record according to ProCyclingStats.com. The age range on the Paris gloaming podium — more than 13 years — is reportedly the largest in Tour history.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Three men on a Tour de France podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, each for the first time. Hasn’t been done since 2007, arguably the first Tour of a new era.

This Tour feels similarly guard-changing.

It barely got off, delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. Two days before the start, France’s prime minister said the virus was “gaining ground” in the nation and announced new “red zones” in the country, including parts of the Tour route.

Testing protocols meant that if any team had two members (cyclists or staff) test positive before the start or on either rest day, the whole team would be thrown out.

It never came to that. Yet the Tour finishes without 2019 champion, Colombian Egan Bernal, who last year became the first South American winner and, at the time, the youngest in more than 100 years.

Bernal abandoned last Wednesday after struggling in the mountains. His standings plummet signaled the end, at least for now, of the Ineos Grenadiers dynasty after five straight Tour titles dating to Chris Froome and the Team Sky days.

Jumbo-Visma became the new dominant team. The leader Roglic was ushered up climbs by several Jumbo men, including Sepp Kuss, the most promising American male cyclist in several years.

What a story Roglic was shaping up to be. A junior champion ski jumper, he was concussed in a training crash on the eve of what would have been his World Cup debut in 2007. Roglic never made it to the World Cup before quitting and taking up cycling years later.

As Roglic recovered from that spill in Planica, Pogacar had his sights on the Rog Ljubljana cycling club about 60 miles east. Little Tadej wanted to follow older brother Tilen into bike racing, but the club didn’t have a bike small enough.

The following spring, they found one. Pogacar was off and pedaling. In 2018, at age 18, he was offered a contract and then signed with UAE Team Emirates, his first World Tour team. The next year, Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic, becoming the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

Pogacar was initially slated to support another rider, Fabio Aru, for UAE Emirates at this year’s Tour. But his continued ascent propelled him into a team leader role.

Bernal and Roglic entered the Tour as co-favorites. After that, Pogacar was among a group of podium contenders but perhaps with the highest ceiling.

He stayed with the favorites for much of the Tour, save losing 81 seconds on the seventh stage, caught on the wrong end of a split after a crash in front of him.

“I’m not worried,” Pogacar said that day. “We will try another day.”

The next day, actually. He reeled back half of the lost time, putting him within striking distance of Roglic going into Saturday’s 22-mile time trial, the so-called “race of truth.”

Pogacar put in a performance in the time trial that reminded of Greg LeMond‘s epic finale in 1989. Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place. Roglic was a disappointing fifth on the day, but he could have finished second and still lost all of his 57-second lead to Pogacar.

Pogacar turns 22 on Monday, but that might not add much to the celebration.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of my birthdays.”

MORE: USA Cycling names Olympic team finalists

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