Four riders bid for historically close Tour de France title

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LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AP) — The battle for victory will go down to the wire at the Tour de France.

With just six stages left before the three-week race reaches the Champs-Elysees, only 29 seconds separate the top four riders in the general classification.

Defending champion and three-time winner Chris Froome has an 18-second lead over Fabio Aru of Italy. Frenchman Romain Bardet, the runner-up to Froome last year, is 23 seconds back from the leader, in third place. In fourth, is Colombian Rigoberto Uran.

It’s an unusual situation ahead of an intense final week of racing that includes two Alpine stages in high altitude and a short time trial.

“It’s the hardest fought battle in terms of Tours de France I’ve done before,” Froome said during Monday’s rest day. “I’m just grateful I’m on the right side of those gaps.”

Froome has the strongest team and remains the favorite to win in Paris, despite some rare signs of weakness.

He endured a bad day in the Pyrenees during a grueling stage to the ski station of Peyragudes, when he lost the overall lead to Aru after wearing the race leader’s yellow jersey for seven days. But the Team Sky leader recovered in style two days later, when Aru was trapped at the back of the peloton in Rodez.

On a windy day in the south of France, Froome and his teammates showed their superiority by riding at the front when the peloton stretched out and managed to put 24 seconds into their leader’s closest rival.

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Froome’s main asset in the final stretch will be the strength of his teammates. Expect them to ride at the front in the mountains and to set a punishingly fast tempo – all designed to prevent others from attacking. If Froome is in form, he will be untouchable.

The collective strength of the Sky Team was on display Sunday when Froome was forced to change his rear wheel in the final 40 kilometers and got dropped.

“I was just standing there on the side of the road with my teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, trying to change wheels. I thought it was potentially game over for me,” Froome said.

But Kwiatkowski quickly handed over his wheel and Froome was helped back to the front by teammates Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka and Mikel Nieve, erasing a 45-second gap.

Mikel Landa, who looks strong enough to be a leader in another team, was riding at the front but waited for Froome to catch up and the pair worked together to finish with the main contenders.

Froome has also showed great composure and calm when in trouble. In danger of losing the coveted leader’s jersey, he did not panic while Bardet, Uran and Aru failed to join forces at the front.

“I think Chris was strong because he was calm. The temptation can be to go too hard too quickly, you panic a little bit, go really, really deep to get on too quickly and of course you just explode,” Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford said.

Froome’s rivals have now to find a way to unsettle and isolate him in the Alps before Saturday’s time trial in Marseille, where the British rider will have the upper hand in the race against the clock.

Here is a look at the other contenders ahead of Tuesday’s Stage 16 (7:30 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold and NBCSN) that will lead the peloton to the gateway to the Alps in Romans-sur-Isere.

FABIO ARU

Aru was the big winner in Peyragudes, where he took the yellow jersey for the first time after Froome cracked in the last 500 meters of the stage.

But he could not build on the momentum and was isolated in the finale of the Rodez stage, handing overall lead back to Froome after only two days in yellow.

The former Vuelta champion is paying the price for his Astana team’s weaknesses. The Kazakhstan-funded team has lost key members Jakob Fuglsang and Dario Cataldo in crashes, and Aru has to count on his own skills when in trouble.

He will ride on his favorite terrain from Wednesday when the race enters the Alps. His only option if he wants to succeed Vincenzo Nibali on the list of Italian winners of the Tour will be to attack.

“This is going to be a very tough final week and so not everything is lost,” Aru said. “There aren’t just a few seconds difference now between me and Froome, but there aren’t so many either. So the Tour is still wide open.”

ROMAIN BARDET

Bardet has made no mistake so far in his bid to become the first Frenchman in 32 years to win cycling’s biggest race.

The 26-year-old climbing specialist finished runner-up to Froome last year and wants to move one step higher on the podium.

“I’m waiting for an opportunity to create a time difference,” Bardet said.

A very attack-minded cyclist with a natural instinct for racing, Bardet is in superb physical shape. In Peyragudes, his lethal acceleration earned him the stage win. He will try to reproduce the move in the mammoth Stage 18 to the Col d’Izoard, which features a final 14.1-kilometer ascent to the top of the mountain, at an altitude of 2,360 meters.

“I’m not thinking about the time trial,” Bardet said. “We’ll check the situation after the Izoard. I’m going to ride two Alpine stages as if they were classics.”

RIGOBERTO URAN

Twice a runner-up at the Giro, the Colombian from Cannondale-Drapac is now a serious contender for the overall win in France.

“We knew Rigo was super good and capable of winning mountain stages, and that he was capable of being in the top five overall,” said Jonathan Vaughters, manager of Uran’s Cannondale-Drapac team. “But that he was going to be 29 seconds behind? No.”

An excellent climber with good downhill skills, Uran has taken advantage of the very mountainous route in 2017. He made headlines during the first week when he won a stage in Chambery despite riding on a faulty bike, unable to change gears for the final 23 kilometers.

Uran, a former Team Sky rider, finished second at the Giro in 2013 and 2014 after winning the Olympic silver medal in the road race in London in 2012. He decided not to compete at this year’s Giro to arrive in perfect shape at the Tour, a good strategy so far.

Vaughters said Uran will not be content with a podium finish in Paris.

“That’s not really Rigos’s mentality, he is a kind of all-in guy,” Vaughters said. “For me, if we risk everything and he ends up in fifth place because we rolled the dice and it went the wrong way, c’est la vie.”

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MORE: 10 Tour de France riders to watch

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russian doping whistleblower, still lives in fear

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His head covered in a black balaclava, adjusting dark goggles obscuring his eyes, Grigory Rodchenkov grows anxious if any part of his face can be seen.

Exposing Russia’s state-sponsorship doping scheme forced Rodchenkov into hiding in the United States five years ago. Revealing his current identity is still too risky for the chemist turned whistleblower, even in a video interview from an undisclosed location.

“It’s my security measures because I have physical threats to be assassinated,” Rodchenkov told The Associated Press. “And I want to live.”

Evidence from Rodchenkov that has already turned Vladimir Putin‘s Russia into international sporting outcasts continues to be used in cases against athletes along with data from his former laboratory in Moscow.

“Putin, he is quite logical. He separates opposition in two ways — enemies … betrayers,” Rodchenkov said. “I am falling in the betrayers’ category and all betrayers should be beheaded, cut, dead. So there is no doubt that he wants me to be dead.”

It has not deterred him from documenting his life story in “The Rodchenkov Affair: How I Brought Down Putin’s Secret Doping Empire,” revisiting how he conspired with his country to corrupt sports and then tries to show contrition by turning star witness.

Rodchenkov was the brains behind the Duchess cocktail of anabolic steroids and cover-up that turned Russia into a medal machine at the home Olympics in Sochi in 2014, topping the standings with 13 gold medals before disqualifications.

Russian spies ensured the Duchess would not be detected in doping tests as FSB agents used a hole in the wall of the Sochi laboratory to swap out the dirty samples with clean urine at night.

“For me, it was the end of doping control,” Rodchenkov said. “If we can do it, why others cannot?”

The doping cover-up extended beyond the Winter Olympics, into the Summer Games, Paralympics, world track and field championships and every major sport.

Some Russians were barred from competing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games and 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games as the International Olympic Committee remains opposed to blanket bans on countries.

So Russian athletes can still compete on the international stage if they can show they are clean, despite a four-year ban from major international sporting events being imposed on the nation last year for a fresh cover-up, including tampering with data gained from Rodchenkov’s former lab in Moscow.

“Sport is a part of Putin’s politics and showing to the West how good Russia is,” Rodchenkov said. “You cannot trust Russia. You cannot trust the certification authorities, and (anti-doping) laboratories cannot be allowed to be restored within the foreseeable future.”

Especially now, according to Rodchenkov, following constitutional changes allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms, in 2024 and 2030,

“Until 2036,” Rodchenkov said, “no trust.”

But why now trust Rodchenkov as he presents a virtuous image at odds with his deep collusion with the state to cheat?

“When you are laboratory director and you have 50 employees and you are reporting to your high ups at the ministry, I could not even think about morals,” he said, dismissing concerns about any long-term damage to the health of athletes he allowed to be pumped with steroids.

“It’s extremely debatable and still ungrounded,” he said. “We see the generation who is now in the end of their lives of 70s and 80s, which are still … in a good physical condition after steroid programs.”

Go back four decades and Rodchenkov was starting out in a Soviet system learning how to manipulate doping controls.

“I had honestly, I’m sorry, but I had huge feelings of accomplishment,” he said. “Those athletes I helped to (win) were extremely talented and I could not understand, with the coach, how he or she may lose to others. The only explanation was doping. Then using some programs, we won gold medals. Honestly it was like leveling the field.

“Again, ‘morals’ is maybe vocabulary from American life but not from Soviet and Russian. In (the) Soviet (Union) it was the Soviet moral, in Russia there is no morals.”

It helps when the athletes are compliant.

“This is the huge problem of the militarization of Russia sport,” Rodchenkov said. “They follow orders, they are disciplined but they cannot tell the truth because they have given the oath to the Russian state and consider foreigners as potential enemies or even actual enemies. That’s why in Russia there are three ways – lying, cheating and denying.”

Rodchenkov has had to convince the world he has shed those ways and is coming clean. More of the cases he helped to cover-up could soon come to light after the World Anti-Doping Agency shared data – of samples tested up to 2015, and tampering that continued into 2019 – that was retrieved from the Moscow testing lab at the heart of the state-backed doping program.

“The problem is that the people from outside cannot understand what is going on inside sports,” he said. “Only whistleblowers could do that. But in corrupted countries you have to escape and we need to be preserved.”

For Rodchenkov that means living a life constantly in fear of being recognized as happened on a train in the US.

“It was a student,” he recalled. “I told him, `Forget you are meeting me, yes it’s me, don’t tell anyone.’ … I disappeared again.”

MORE: Russia track and field faces expulsion if it misses deadline

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Noah Lyles, more world champs race in Monaco; TV, live stream schedule

Noah Lyles
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Noah Lyles headlines a bevy of world champions slated for the first full-on Diamond League meet of the abbreviated track and field season, live on NBC Sports on Friday.

Monaco hosts the strongest fields of any meet since the world championships 10 months ago. Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and NBC Sports Gold air coverage on Friday at 2 p.m. ET.

Reigning world champions include Lyles (200m), Grant Holloway (110m hurdles), Donavan Brazier (800m) and Sam Kendricks (pole vault), and those are just the Americans.

Swede Mondo Duplantis, who twice raised the pole vault world record in February, takes on Kendricks in Monaco. Distance stars Sifan Hassan, Hellen Obiri, Beatrice Chepkoech, Timothy Cheruiyot and Joshua Cheptegei dot the fields, too.

The Diamond League season was due to start in April, but the coronavirus pandemic halted large-gathering track meets until now. Repurposed versions of Diamond League meets in Oslo and Zurich were held the last two months with fewer events and athletes and some entrants racing from different countries.

After Monaco, more Diamond League meets are scheduled for Stockholm (Aug. 23), Lausanne (Sept. 2), Brussels (Sept. 4), Naples (Sept. 17), Doha (Sept. 25) and China (Oct. 17).

Here are the Monaco entry lists. Here’s the schedule of events (all times Eastern):

1:40 p.m. ET — Men’s Pole Vault
2:03 — Men’s 110m Hurdles
2:05 — Women’s High Jump
2:12 — Men’s 800m
2:17 — Women’s Triple Jump
2:19 — Women’s 5000m
2:42 — Men’s 400m Hurdles
2:50 — Women’s 100m
2:57 — Men’s 1500m
3:07 — Women’s 400m
3:13 — Men’s 5000m
3:32 — Men’s 200m
3:39 — Women’s 100m
3:47 — Men’s 3000m Steeplechase

Here are five events to watch (statistics via Tilastopaja.org):

Men’s Pole Vault — 1:40 p.m.
The top field event of the meet includes the reigning Olympic champion (Brazil’s Thiago Braz), reigning world champion (Kendricks) and the world-record holder (Duplantis, who must be the favorite here). Kendricks and Duplantis already went head-to-head this spring, competing virtually from respective home pole-vault setups. Kendricks took their first six head-to-heads, back when Duplantis was a teenager, but the Louisiana-born Swede won all four of their indoor duels in February. Duplantis is the clear Tokyo Olympic favorite until proven otherwise.

Men’s 800m — 2:12 p.m.
The top four from the 2019 World Championships are entered. Brazier, 23, caught fire the last year. He broke the American record to win the world title. He broke his own American indoor record in February. Then, last month, Brazier took 1.33 seconds off his 1500m personal best. Nobody in the Monaco field has beaten Brazier since the start of 2018.

Women’s 5000m — 2:19 p.m.
Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in world champion at 1500m and 10,000m, but she’s lost four of five meetings with two-time world champion Hellen Obiri of Kenya at 5000m. Hassan appears to be gearing up to race the 5000m in Tokyo, though, saying last month her eye was on a 1500m-5000m Olympic double had the Games been held this year. The 1500m preliminary heats and the 5000m final are separated by about 12 hours at the Olympics next year. Also in this field: three-time Olympian and former American record holder Shannon Rowbury, set for her first Diamond League race in nearly three years and since the birth of daughter Sienna.

Men’s 1500m — 2:57 p.m.
Last we saw Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in a 1500m, he led wire-to-wire en route to a 2.12-second victory in the world championships final. Only one man has beaten Cheruiyot in three years, countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is provisionally suspended due to whereabouts failures. The Monaco field does include Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen (second-fastest man of 2019), Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha (indoor mile world-record holder), Pole Marcin Lewandowski (world bronze medalist) and Craig Engels (2019 U.S. champion who was 10th at worlds).

Men’s 200m — 3:32 p.m.
Lyles and younger brother Josephus Lyles go head-to-head for the first time since January 2017. Noah has lost just one outdoor 200m since placing fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials coming out of high school. Josephus, primarily a 400m sprinter in his developmnt, last month took a half-second off a five-year-old 200m personal best. His new best time — 20.24 seconds — would have placed third at the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships behind Noah (19.78) and Christian Coleman (20.02).

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