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Grand Prix figure skating: Five pairs to watch

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Five pairs teams to watch this fall as the Grand Prix season starts this week …

Sui Wenjing/Han Cong
China
2017 World champions
Grand Prix Starts: China, Japan

At 22 and 25, they are the new generation of Chinese pairs following the breakthrough early 2000s success of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo and Pang Qing and Tong Jian. Missed most of last season due to Sui’s right ankle and left foot surgeries the previous spring. No worry, they upgraded world silver medals in 2015 and 2016 by posting the highest short-program score since the Sochi Olympics and a personal-best free skate score by six points for the world title.

Aliona Savchenko/Bruno Massot
Germany
2017 World silver medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Savchenko won five world titles and two Olympic bronze medals with Robin Szolkowy but needed a new parter when Szolkowy retired in 2014. Enter Massot, a Frenchman who was cleared to compete with Savchenko for Germany in October 2015. They, too, overcame injury last year (Savchenko’s torn ankle ligament) for silver at their two biggest events — Europeans and worlds.

Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov
Russia
2017 World bronze medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, France

The present and future of Russian pairs. Tarasova, 22, and Morozov, 24, won the two biggest events before worlds last season — the Grand Prix Final and Europeans. At worlds, Tarasova sliced her leg on Morozov’s skate in a practice accident hours before short program. With 10 stitches, they went on win their first world medal.

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Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford
Canada
2015, 2016 World champions
Grand Prix Starts: Canada, U.S.

Attempted last season to become the first pair in nearly 40 years to win three straight world titles. But they struggled as the campaign went on, notably on a throw triple Axel they eventually dropped from their arsenal, culminating in a seventh-place showing at worlds.

Ksenia Stolbova/Fedor Klimov
Russia
2014 Olympic silver medalists
Grand Prix Starts: Russia, Japan

Maybe the biggest wild card in all of figure skating. They looked primed for greatness after taking silver in Sochi — at ages 22 and 23, behind Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov (who are uncertain to defend their Olympic title). But injuries struck both skaters. Their season debut last year came at the Russian Championships in late December, where they upset Tarasova and Morozov. But they fell to fourth at Europeans and fifth at worlds, where they were 13th in the short program.

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Annemiek van Vleuten wins La Course with epic comeback (video)

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Annemiek van Vleuten, the cyclist who returned from a horrific Rio Olympic road race crash to become world champion, repeated as La Course winner with an epic last-kilometer comeback on Tuesday.

Van Vleuten sprinted from several seconds behind countrywoman Anna van der Breggen to win the one-day race, including four categorized climbs, contested on part of the Tour de France stage 10 course later that day.

“With 300 meters to go, I still thought I got second, and then I saw her dying,” Van Vleuten said, adding later, according to Cyclingnews.com, “With 500 meters to go my team director in the car gave up and stopped cheering for me.”

In Rio, van Vleuten suffered three small spine fractures and a concussion when her brakes appeared to lock, and she flipped over into a ditch during the road race. Van Vleuten was alone in the lead at the time with about seven miles to go of the 87-mile course.

She was eventually hospitalized in intensive care.

Van der Breggen went on to win the Olympic title, while van Vleuten returned quick enough to race at the October 2016 World Championships.

Van Vleuten, 35, won her first world title 13 months after the Rio Games, taking the time trial crown ahead of van der Breggen by 12 seconds. She also won the 10-stage Giro Rosa that concluded on Sunday.

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Greg Van Avermaet triples Tour de France lead in first mountain stage

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Belgian Greg Van Avermaet more than tripled his Tour de France overall lead in the first day in the mountains on Tuesday, but Wednesday may be his last day in the yellow jersey.

Julian Alaphilippe became the first Frenchman to win a stage in this year’s Tour, claiming the 10th stage that included three first-category climbs and a beyond-category climb but ended with a descent and the contenders together in the peloton.

Van Avermaet finished fourth, 1:44 behind Alaphilippe. More importantly, Van Avermaet crossed the Grand-Bornand finish line 1:39 ahead of a group that included most of the main contenders to top the podium in Paris on July 29.

The Olympic road race champion increased his overall lead from 43 seconds to 2:22.

Van Avermaet has worn the maillot jaune for a week straight, but he is not a climber, and the biggest test of the Tour thus far is imminent.

“No disrespect, but he’s not going to win the Tour,” said Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who is in second place.

The Tour continues with stage 11, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold on Wednesday (full broadcast schedule here). The 67-mile stage starts in the 1992 Winter Olympic host Albertville and includes two beyond-category climbs. It concludes with a category-one summit at La Rosière.

“Tomorrow’s a climber’s day,” Van Avermaet said. “It will be super hard to keep [the yellow jersey]. … Tomorrow it will be over.”

Chris Froome, eyeing a record-tying fifth Tour de France title, is best placed of the pre-Tour favorites.

Froome is in sixth place and 3:21 behind Van Avermaet. Froome is followed by Spaniard Mikel Landa in the same time and 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali another six seconds back.

Colombian Rigoberto Uran, the 2017 Tour runner-up, finished 2:36 behind the group with Froome, Landa and Nibali.

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