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
BMC/Australia
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
Movistar/Colombia
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.

MORE: Tour de France broadcast schedule

Alberto Contador
Trek–Segafredo/Spain
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
Movistar/Spain
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
Bora-Hansgrohe/Slovakia
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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MORE: Tour de France broadcast schedule

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
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Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

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