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Olympic sliding season begins with high U.S. expectations

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LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) — The scene following just about every World Cup women’s bobsled race last season looked something like this: Elana Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser on the podium, both Americans celebrating yet another medal as they waved a bouquet of flowers into the frosty air.

They’re hoping to reprise that a few times this winter — all the way to the PyeongChang Olympics.

The World Cup sliding season starts Thursday for bobsled and skeleton, and racing on the home ice of Mount Van Hoevenberg for the opener should give Greubel Poser and Meyers Taylor an edge over the rest of the field as the Olympic campaign officially begins. It’s not like they need a lot of help: In the nine major races last season, the two driving stars combined for seven wins.

“I have great equipment, amazing pushers, I know what I’m doing and I know what I’ve done,” Greubel Poser said. “I’m ready to do it.”

There are always some surprise names that pop up in an Olympic year, but there’s also little doubt that the three women’s bobsled pilots who reached the podium at the Sochi Games in 2014 are the huge favorites to get there again in February in South Korea. Canada’s Kaillie Humphries is the two-time reigning gold medalist, Meyers Taylor got silver in 2014 and Greubel Poser took bronze.

Greubel Poser, Humphries and Meyers Taylor finished 1-2-3 in the World Cup overall standings last season, and at the world championships, it was Meyers Taylor winning gold, Humphries getting silver and Greubel Poser taking bronze. And odds are, it’ll be those three again — in some order — in PyeongChang.

“The depth of this team is unbelievable,” U.S. coach Brian Shimer said.

Women’s skeleton and two-man bobsled is also on Thursday’s schedule in Lake Placid, with men’s skeleton and another two-man bobsled race set for Friday. There are two two-man races this weekend, and two four-man races in Park City, Utah, when the circuit heads next weekend.

While the World Cups matter, this season it’s about finding what works — including finding which push athletes from a deep U.S. pool will be best served to help Meyers Taylor and Greubel Poser in the season’s ultimate race. Olympic bronze medalist Aja Evans is back, Kehri Jones pushed Meyers Taylor to gold at worlds last season and hurdler-turned-bobsledder Lolo Jones returns to resume her medal quest as well.

So realistically, the World Cup season is an Olympic preseason of sorts.

“Pretty much. This year they kind of have to be because we have to test these brakemen,” Meyers Taylor said. “As much as I wanted to go out and crush every World Cup, at the end of the day we’re going to have to try some things.”

Greubel Poser will have Evans in her sled Thursday, while Meyers Taylor will get pushed by Lauren Gibbs and the USA-3 sled driven by Brittany Reinbolt will have Briauna Jones in the back seat.

It was an offseason of tumult for the U.S. bobsled program. Shimer’s home in Naples, Fla., got clobbered by Hurricane Irma, setting back his preparations for the season. There already have been some injury issues.

And of course, the biggest blow was the death of longtime USA-1 driver Steven Holcomb, who would have been Olympics-bound again this winter.

His death leaves not just a hole in the men’s roster but on the entire team.

It’s the women like Meyers Taylor and Greubel Poser who could ensure that the U.S. stays on track. Both are going through their second Olympic cycle as drivers, have dealt with plenty of disappointments along with plenty of victories and now know the biggest season in their careers has arrived.

“Leading up to Sochi my success was more of a pleasant surprise,” Greubel Poser said. “Now I have higher expectations and goals. I want to win.”

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MORE: Steven Holcomb, from those who knew him best

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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