Ten riders to watch at Tour de France

Leave a comment

Ten riders to watch at the Tour de France, live on NBC Sports from July 7-29 (broadcast/streaming schedule here) … 

Chris Froome
Team Sky/Great Britain
2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 Tour de France winner

If there’s one storyline this year, it’s Froome’s bid to tie the Tour de France titles record amid at least a microscope and at most a drug-testing controversy. Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain all won five. Lance Armstrong of course claimed seven, but they were all stripped. Froome’s history chase is clouded by a September doping test that revealed twice the legal limit of an asthma drug. Froome was cleared of wrongdoing by the International Cycling Union five days before the start of the Tour, but he is sure to be the target of (at least) verbal barbs from fans.

Nairo Quintana
Movistar/Colombia
2013, 2015 Tour de France runner-up

Once Froome’s biggest challenger and still may be. Quintana won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and the Vuelta a España in 2016, the latter being the last time Froome was beaten in a Grand Tour. Quintana struggled to 12th at last year’s Tour de France, but that was after racing the Giro that spring. Quintana skipped the Giro this season, but matters are complicated by having two other GC riders on his team.

Richie Porte
BMC/Australia
Fifth place, 2016 Tour de France

Porte was Froome’s right-hand man in the mountains for his first two Tour titles. He moved to BMC in 2016 and was tapped by Froome last year as his biggest threat, but Porte crashed out of stage nine in the 2017 Tour. Porte returned to win the Tour de Suisse last month (Quintana was third; Froome was resting after winning the Giro). Team BMC, which also includes American Tejay van Garderen, faces an uncertain future without a title sponsor beyond this season.

Mikel Landa
Movistar/Spain
Fourth place, 2017 Tour de France

Landa succeeded Porte as the strongest non-Froome rider on Sky. He missed the podium by one second last year and certainly looked strong enough helping Froome in the mountains to be leading his own team. Landa’s move to Movistar for this season doesn’t necessarily boost his yellow-jersey hopes. He’s on a team with two other GC contenders — Quintana and Alejando Valverde.

Vincenzo Nibali
Bahrain–Merida/Italy
2014 Tour de France winner

The only man in the field with a Tour title other than Froome. Like Froome, Nibali has also won all three Grand Tours (seven men have done this in history). Nibali, who left Astana for Bahrain-Merida in 2017, has finished on the podium in 10 of his last 14 Grand Tours dating to 2010. But he was 30th in his last Tour de France in 2016 and unimpressive in spring races.

Tom Dumoulin
Sunweb/Netherlands
2017 Giro d’Italia winner

Dumoulin’s success can be separated into two pots — time trials and the Giro. He earned Olympic time trial silver in Rio (between Fabian Cancellara and Froome) and won the world title last year (ahead of bronze medalist Froome). He captured the Giro in 2017, becoming the first Dutch man to win a Grand Tour since 1980, and was runner-up to Froome in Italy this year. Dumoulin’s best Tour de France finish was 33rd, and this is his first time racing the Tour after completing the Giro.

Romain Bardet
AG2R La Mondiale/France
Tour de France runner-up (2016) and third place (2017)

At 27, the youngest rider on this list. Bardet is again tasked with trying to end France’s longest Tour victory drought, now dating 33 years since Hinault’s fifth and final title in 1985. Strong in the mountains, Bardet is known for struggling in time trials. He nearly squandered a place on the podium on a 14-mile time trial in the Tour’s penultimate stage last year, losing 72 seconds to Landa.

Rigoberto Uran
EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale/Colombia
2017 Tour de France runner-up

The surprise of the 2017 Tour podium. Uran was best known for taking 2012 Olympic road race silver. He went into the 2017 Tour with a best previous finish of 24th, though he was runner-up at the Giro 2013 and 2014. Uran helped usher in a strong group of Colombian riders, but no South American has won the Tour de France. Uran, flying under the radar by his spring results, will again have help from American Taylor Phinney and, especially in the mountains, veteran Frenchman Pierre Rolland.

Peter Sagan
Bora–Hansgrohe/Slovakia
Eight Tour de France stage wins

The most magnetic figure in the sport returns after being wrongly disqualified for his clash with Mark Cavendish in the fourth stage last year. Sagan is nicknamed “The Terminator,” is known to pop wheelies at races and inhale gummy fruit candy after victories. And that happens often. Sagan has won three world road race titles and five Tour de France points classifications as the top sprinter. One more green jersey in Paris to match Erik Zabel‘s record.

Mark Cavendish
Dimension Data/Great Britain
30 Tour de France stage wins

Cavendish’s Tour ended after four stages last year, breaking his shoulder falling from that clash with Sagan. That meant he remained four stage wins shy of Merckx’s record. Time is running out. Cavendish is 33 years old and won five stages total from the last four Tours. It’s getting more and more difficult for the Manx Missile to outsprint Sagan and the other 20-somethings chasing the green jersey.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Froome cleared to race Tour, doping case closed

Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
Getty
Leave a comment

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mariah Bell hit the final pose of her “Hallelujah” free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday night and couldn’t hold back her tears. The 23-year-old skater had just had the performance of her life at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

When Bell reached the kiss-and-cry, the first person she hugged wasn’t Rafael Arutunian, her coach since 2016, but former training partner Adam Rippon. A jubilant Rippon thrust Bell’s arm up in the air in triumph. As her score – a whopping 225.21 points, good for a silver medal – flashed up, he repeated the gesture.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell said. “He’s completely changed my outlook on training. … To have that moment with him here was so special. I was hoping something like this would happen, because he deserved to have that moment, too.”

Considering all of the irons Rippon has in the fire, he is an unlikely candidate to be a coach, even part-time. Since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the personable 2016 U.S. champion is in high demand for reality TV, hosting and comedy gigs. He crossed the country promoting his autobiography, Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir. But something was missing.

“After the Olympics, my plan was always to work with Rafael,” Rippon said shortly before the ladies’ free skate in Greensboro. “Then, I had a lot of opportunities come my way. One of my dreams was always to do what I do now, to be involved in comedy. I’ve always done it off the ice, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the funniest person at the party.’ But when I got to do it as a job, it was a dream come true.

“Still, I felt I learned so much as a skater, because I was so self-directed, with Rafael’s help. Part of me that thought, ‘I can still help.’”

So after U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last August, Rippon teamed up with the talented Bell, then a U.S. bronze medalist known for her on-ice sparkle as well as occasional inconsistency. With his help, she had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning two bronze medals.

As Rippon tells it, the key was helping Bell work harder and smarter on the ice.

“She needed to switch her mindset,” Rippon said. “What she thought was hard work, I thought of as a light day. Her hard work was what I considered a warm-up.”

After Champs Camp, the Los Angeles-based Rippon had two weeks free, so he visited Bell at their training rink in Irvine, California for three hours each day. There, he sharpened her work ethic.

“All of a sudden I was (telling her), ‘You’re going to do a double toe, double loop at end of every jump, or a triple toe at the end of every jump,’” he recalled. “It was just challenging her in a way she hasn’t been challenged before, so that when she got to the competition the pressure was much less.”

Rippon created a training plan with Bell, charting everything from workouts to breaks to program run-throughs.

“We did this, so that when she got to a competition, she could look down on the paper and say, ‘Look at all of the stuff I did; I’m ready,’” he said. “She could just go and enjoy it.”

After the two-week period following Champs Camp, the busy Rippon could only work with Bell three or four times a month. The two stayed connected via frequent telephone conversations and videos.

Then, a few weeks before Greensboro, both Rippon and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne visited Irvine to help Arutunian prepare Bell for the U.S. Championships.

“We did a lot of work before nationals, running and polishing programs,” Rippon said. “I think Shae-Lynn is one of the best, if not the best, choreographer working today. So yes, I did the choreography of Mariah’s short (set to a Britney Spears medley), but when Shae-Lynn is there, you take advantage.”

Rippon’s strategy, along with Bourne’s choreography and Arutunian’s technical expertise, paid off big time. On Friday, Bell landed six clean triples, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop, in a stirring free skate choreographed by Bourne to “Hallelujah.”

“Mariah took my advice and she worked hard and she transformed herself,” Rippon said. “She’s one of the oldest ladies in the competition, and she’s kind of having a renaissance, and I relate to that. I felt like that happened to me, too. At the end of my career, I that I was in the best headspace.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Despite the success, Rippon isn’t planning to expand his coaching to other skaters. He’s too busy with a new project, developing content for Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform.

“It’s my biggest thing right now,” Rippon said. “Everything on the platform is 10 minutes or less. I sold them a show and we started filming last week. I just had this week off, because I asked to go to nationals.”

It’s a comedy show, of course, with Rippon, other comedians and celebrity guests poking fun at the events of the day.

“We do a review of whatever idiotic thing happened,” he said. “It will be funny. I’m very excited.”

But no matter how successful this project, or the next, becomes, Rippon will never abandon figure skating.

“(Quibi) is my work,” he said. “When I have days off, I come to the rink  and I get to work with Mariah, and that’s sort of my relaxation. I reconnect to my roots.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

Leave a comment

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Not long before Alysa Liu was to take the ice as the last of 18 women to do her free skate Friday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 14-year-old sat amidst the comings and goings and general commotion of a hallway leading to the ice. She had ear buds in place, munched on an apple and watched the skater who preceded her, Mariah Bell.

By the time Liu reached the Greensboro Coliseum rink for her final warmup moments, the ice surface was littered with stuffed animals, a form of tribute to an outstanding skater, and packed with the flower girls who pick them up. It was also awash with noise from an audience saluting the brilliant skating Bell had just done, an elegant, near flawless performance to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

With the crowd’s reaction roaring in her now open ears, Liu weaved through the girls and the plushies in what seemed an eternity before the announcement of Bell’s scores. Liu waited and glided around with an aplomb that is just one of the many extraordinary parts of the personality of this 10th grader who last year had become the youngest U.S. senior champion in history.

In the crowd, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano watched with his coach, Linda Leaver, trying to see how Liu would react to what could be a discomfiting, pressurized situation.

“When she came out, I said to Linda, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, girl,’” Boitano said. “I thought it was really a sign of a champion she was smiling, and she was relaxed.”

And when her four minutes of skating to “Illumination” by composer-pianist Jennifer Thomas was over, Liu had moved into a league of her own in the United States.

“I was very happy for Mariah,” Liu said. “I didn’t get nervous or excited. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, she did well, and I also have to do well.’”

Capitalizing on the high values of her difficult jumps, Liu skated so well she won her second title by more than 10 points, with 235.52 to Bell’s 225.81. Bradie Tennell, who led Liu by 3.56 points and Bell by 5.74 after the short program, dropped to third (220.86) after mistakes on her final two jumping passes, including a fall on the last.

As they had done last year, Bell and Tennell had to lend their arms to help Liu ascend the top step of the podium for the awards ceremony, a delightfully ironic circumstance given how the 4-foot, 10-inch Liu towers above them in competition.

“It’s so exciting,” said Liu’s coach, Laura Lipetsky. “I’m so proud of her and happy for her. She really wanted to do well.

“She just blocked out what was going on beforehand and did her job.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu went into the free skate with a technical base value advantage of more than 16 points over both Bell and Tennell. She made the most of it by executing all but one of the 12 elements very well, failing only on her attempt to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump at nationals.

Her quadruple Lutz was called under-rotated and produced her only negative Grade of Execution. Both Liu’s triple Axels were solid, and her final two spins were of surpassing quality.

Liu said she had begun preparing for one potential psychological hurdle as soon as she saw the free skate draw: the guaranteed 40-minute gap between the end of the final group warmup and the time she was to skate. But she handled just as coolly the unexpected – the crowd reaction to Bell, whose only error was an under-rotated triple Lutz, and her own hard fall earlier in the day.

Liu’s fall had come on a quad Lutz attempt at the end of her final practice, some seven hours before her free skate. It was the last thing she did in that practice, running out of time before she could try another jump.

Some skaters are rattled by a competition-day practice that ends in such a failure, especially if it stings physically. Liu just shook it off.

“I have fallen like that before so it wasn’t like, ‘Omigosh, what am I going to do?’” Liu said. “I guess I knew how to recover from that and focus on other things. I relaxed the rest of the day and iced it so it wouldn’t hurt any more. I just didn’t let that fall get to me.”

Liu joined Ashley Wagner (2012-13) as the only women to win consecutive women’s national titles since Michelle Kwan won her last of eight straight in 2005.

“Last year was more special because it was my first,” Liu said. “This year, I’m just as excited. I’m thinking, ‘It’s a new decade, wow, what a good start.’”

This year is different because her competitive season does not end at nationals.

In 2019, when she was 13, Liu fell below the age minimum for even the Junior World Championships. (U.S. Championships do not have that rule.) Liu will be able to compete at the 2020 Junior World Championships this March in Estonia, but she is not eligible for senior international events until the 2021-22 season – the next Olympic season.

This was her first junior season internationally. She has won a silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix and won two Junior Grand Prix events. But Liu faces formidable competition now and in the future from what seems like an endless stream of young Russians doing quads and triple Axels.

“I am aware a lot of skaters around the world are getting these difficult jumps, and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In Year Two of the Liu Dynasty in America, she has become the youngest to win consecutive national titles and, earlier in the season, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. She is the only U.S. woman to do those difficult jumps.

“I just want to keep improving and hopefully make history along the way,” Liu said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.