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Ted Ligety finally healthy again as Alpine season starts

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The last time Ted Ligety felt this confident, this healthy and this fast on his skis was ages ago.

Oct. 25, 2015, in Soelden, Austria, to be more precise — the date of his last World Cup victory.

Since that day, the U.S. Alpine skier tweaked his back, frayed the cartilage in his hip, torn the ACL in his right knee and wrenched his back again — to the point where he needed season-ending surgery last January to fix herniated disks.

Almost immediately after the surgery he felt better.

Three months after the procedure, he was training again.

And now, Ligety’s progressed to the place where he can actually envision himself defending his Olympic giant slalom title at the Winter Games in PyeongChang in February.

“I’m excited to have a year where I can be healthy and start to push my skiing,” said Ligety, who will race Sunday in the season-opening World Cup giant slalom in Soelden, Austria. “That will be a huge relief, because if I can keep on this trajectory I’m on right now, I know I can ski fast.”

Ligety tried to grit through the pain of a balky back a season ago.

It turned out to be too much to bear for the skier who’s a five-time World Cup giant slalom season champion, five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist.

“Every time I hit a bump, I was in 9 out of a 10 pain,” Ligety said. “Trying to do that every single turn for a World Cup race is really difficult. That was extremely frustrating, but that’s the life of an athlete.”

The persistent back trouble came on the heels of tearing his ACL during a training mishap in Oberjoch, Germany, in January 2016.

The skier once referred to as “Mr. GS” by his rivals has also dealt with hip issues.

Given all the time he’s missed over the years, Ligety doesn’t feel like anywhere near the favorite heading into PyeongChang.

That distinction, in his mind, belongs to six-time defending World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher, who’s currently sidelined after breaking his left ankle in August when he straddled a slalom gate during practice.

The Austrian Hirscher could be back for World Cup races in Beaver Creek, Colo., that begin Dec. 1.

“I’ve got to raise my game for sure,” said Ligety, who has a giant slalom gold from Sochi to go with the combined crown he captured in Torino. “When I was winning races a couple of years ago, that’s the level these guys have surpassed. I have to go beyond what I’ve done in the past. That’s good the sport is evolving and getting better. That’s definitely an inspiration to me, to push myself even harder, to try and figure out ways to get faster.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always thrived when there have been changes and I’ve needed to come up with something new to get faster.”

Over the last few months, he’s been diligently training and feeling no pain in his surgically repaired back.

None whatsoever.

“My body feels very solid now,” he said. “It’s now about getting back up to speed and getting race ready.”

Ligety became a father in late June when he and wife Mia welcomed Jax Ligety into the world.

He recently posted on Instagram how the “duffel bag life is tougher these days,” after a training trip to New Zealand.

The plan is for the family to follow him around the World Cup circuit beginning in January and carry into the Olympics.

“It’s definitely hard to balance, in the sense you don’t want to miss anything,” Ligety said of ski racing and fatherhood. “I want to do all the stuff that involves being a dad, and being there for my kid and watching him grow up. I’m balancing those two things.

“At least I’m my own boss in this job, so I’m able to work my schedule around day time to get my workouts in and still be with him.”

Now 33, Ligety’s started to contemplate just how much longer he wants to keep racing. He’s already launched a successful company, Shred, which makes goggles, sunglasses, gloves and other products.

“The road is coming closer to an end, but it’s not next year or the year after that. We’ll play it year by year, I guess,” Ligety said. “I’d like to leave on a high note.”

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Richie Porte crashes out of Tour de France again

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Australian Richie Porte crashed out of the Tour de France on the ninth stage for a second straight year, suffering a fractured right clavicle six miles into Sunday’s stage.

“Obviously I’m devastated,” Porte said, according to Team BMC. “For the second year in a row I am ending the Tour de France like this. I was on the ground before I knew it, and straight away felt pain in my right shoulder.”

Porte, who finished fifth in the 2016 Tour de France and was an overall podium contender these last two years, was seen sitting on the side of the road, gritting his teeth and crossing his right arm over his chest.

There was a mass stoppage of riders, with at least one spectator down on the side of the narrow road. The crash came well before the Tour stage was to hit 15 arduous cobblestone sections totaling 13 miles.

Porte was in 10th place after eight stages, 57 seconds behind race leader and BMC teammate Greg Van Avermaet. Avermaet and American Tejay van Garderen, in third place, were expected to work for Porte in the mountains later this week, hoping to put him in the yellow jersey.

Now, Van Garderen is in line to be the team leader.

In 2017, Porte fractured his clavicle and pelvis on a ninth-stage crash on a descent and had to abandon the Tour.

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Chris Froome, other stars crash on Tour de France cobblestones stage

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Richie PorteTejay van GarderenRigoberto UranMikel Landa. Even Chris Froome.

Stage nine of the Tour de France promised to rattle the top riders, and the 15 sections of cobblestones totaling 13 miles delivered just that. All of the named men crashed on Sunday, with Porte abandoning the Grand Tour altogether (albeit he crashed before the first cobbles section, six miles into the stage).

In the end, German John Degenkolb got the stage win ahead of overall race leader Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert.

Van Avermaet, the Olympic road race champion from Belgium, retained the yellow jersey for a sixth straight day, extending his lead to 43 seconds over Brit Geraint Thomas. Van Avermaet rides for Team BMC, which lost its team leader in Porte.

American van Garderen presumably became the new team leader, but he crashed later in the stage and also suffered three flat tires.

Van Garderen entered the day third in the overall standings, nine seconds behind Van Avermaet. He ended it in 30th place, 6:05 behind Van Avermaet.

The best-placed favorite to finish on the podium in Paris on July 29 is now the four-time Tour winner Froome, in eighth place, 1:42 behind Van Avermaet. Froome is trying to tie the record of five Tour titles shared by Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

The Tour takes its first of two rest days Monday, resuming with the first day in the Alps on Tuesday live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here). Stage 10 features a beyond-category climb and three category-one climbs.

“I’m relieved to get through today and looking forward to getting into the mountains now where the real race for GC (general classification) will start,” Froome said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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