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Men’s Alpine skiing season storylines

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Three storylines for the Olympic men’s Alpine skiing season ahead of Sunday’s World Cup opener in Soelden, Austria …

1. Marcel Hirscher’s comeback

The Austrian had been on such a roll — a record six straight World Cup overall titles — that he looked like a contender for four gold medals in PyeongChang (slalom, giant slalom, super combined and team event).

Then, on Aug. 17, Hirscher broke his left ankle in training (video here). It’s Hirscher’s first major injury since he became the world’s best skier in 2012, and it comes less than six months before what should be the last Olympics of his prime.

He’s likely out until December, missing the opening technical races of the season in Soelden and Levi, Finland, on Nov. 12. Hirscher has been so strong that he would have won the overall title the last two seasons if one excludes his points from Soelden and Levi.

So a seventh straight overall title is still possible, but it just got more difficult. Combine that with the pressure on Hirscher this season to deliver his first Olympic gold medal come February. It may well be a legacy-defining season for him.

“The only thing I can do next season is [lose],” Hirscher said in March, via NBC Olympic research. “Because if I’m finishing second, in the Austrian press, it would be a disaster.”

2. The men out to dethrone Hirscher

If there is a new overall champion this year, it could be any type of racer.

In the last two seasons, three very different skiers made up Nos. 2-4 in the final standings, within an average of fewer than 100 points of each other — France’s Alexis Pinturault and Norwegians Kjetil Jansrud and Henrik Kristoffersen.

Come February, they will be vying for medals in different Olympic events, but until then all chase the World Cup overall.

Pinturault fits the mold the best. He’s 26, a prime age, and an all-around racer capable of winning giant slaloms and combineds while making the top 10 in slalom and super-G. He won four races last season, breaking Jean-Claude Killy‘s record for World Cup victories by a Frenchman.

Jansrud and Kristoffersen are opposites. Jansrud, 32, has succeeded the injury-plagued Aksel Lund Svindal as Norway’s downhill king. Kristoffersen, 23, emerged as Hirscher’s biggest slalom rival in this Olympic cycle.

If Pinturault is strong across the board, it’s unlikely that Jansrud and Kristoffersen can rack up enough points in speed and technical events, respectively, to challenge him.

3. State of the United States

The Americans are at risk of leaving the Winter Games without a men’s Alpine medal for the first time since 1998.

In 2016, the U.S. men went a calendar year without a World Cup win in any discipline for the first time since 1999. (Travis Ganong broke that skid in January, but on the same day that three-time Olympian Steven Nyman suffered a season-ending crash.)

Olympic giant slalom champion Ted Ligety hasn’t won in two years, his last two seasons cut short by myriad injuries.

The next three months will be key. Ligety will try to re-establish himself as Mr. GS, beginning Sunday in Soelden.

Nyman, the top American downhiller since Sochi, suffered a complete tear to his MCL and PCL and a partial tear to his ACL on Jan. 27. At 35, he’s not much older than the top European speed racers. It’s not out of the question that, once he returns to the World Cup circuit, he can join the Olympic medal conversation.

Ganong, 29, went more than one year between top-five finishes on the World Cup before winning that downhill on Jan. 27.

He has excelled enough on the big stage — fifth in his Olympic debut in the Sochi downhill and downhill silver at the 2015 Worlds — to contend in PyeongChang even if he doesn’t impress in the lead-up races.

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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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