Elizaveta Tuktamysheva (RUS) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)

Elizaveta Tuktamysheva returns to the Grand Prix Final

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Elizaveta Tuktamysheva arrived in Vancouver late Tuesday night to compete in her first Grand Prix Final since she went all but undefeated en route to her 2015 World Championship crown. The self-styled “Empress” aims to add two more strong skates to what has been a comeback campaign, with two wins on the ISU Challenger Series and another in Skate Canada – her first on the Grand Prix level in almost four years.

“I hope that I’ll do two clean triple Axels at the Grand Prix Final, and improve my skating even more than Japan,” she said after a bronze medal at the NHK Trophy, finishing behind senior debutante Rika Kihira and Satoko Miyahara. “I’m really excited about what I did, landing the triple Lutz-triple toe and the triple Axel in both programs. I was so nervous but I’m still skating well.”

The ladies free skate in Hiroshima was bar-none the best of the season; though Tuktamysheva won the short program with a clean triple Axel, Kihira landed two of her own to rally for gold in the free skate.

“I said before the Grand Prix started that this event would be the hardest to win. I know these girls and how they can skate so well. I’m just happy that I scored the highest total of my figure skating career. I’m not so much sad about finishing in third place, because I know Satoko was really good in the free program, and there’s no words for what Rika did!

“It’s a different feeling to a jump a triple Axel than a Lutz or a toe-loop. For a while, I felt scared about this jump, the way a woman might feel when they’re pregnant! I was scared to fall on it. You have to jump differently, and I keep working to understand every moment before its take-off. I have so much training with this jump in particular, and I want to do it so much. I need to understand exactly what I need to do, and do it the same way every time.”

Undaunted by the competition, Tuktamysheva plans to match Kihira’s base value by adding the triple flip back into her repertoire – posting a triple flip-triple toe combination to her Instagram over Thanksgiving weekend – and analyzed Olympic champion Alina Zagitova as a commentator during Rostelecom Cup.

“I’ve really wanted to have this opportunity for the last two years, because it’s really interesting for me,” she began diplomatically, then added with a laugh, “Well, first of all, my boyfriend Andrei Lazukin is skating, and I hope he does well. If he makes mistakes, I might end up saying some bad words on TV!”

The MatchTV gig is the latest addition to her growing media empire, one on which the sun never sets with the help of her Twitter, Instagram, and, most recently, a YouTube Channel that features a pun-filled interview with reigning world champion Nathan Chen.

“I really feel the love because I’m starting to do much more on social media. I’m speaking more with the fans, and I think that’s important for the people who love figure skating. All skaters should be like this.”

Tuktamysheva has always been a trend-setter. Beyond the triple Axel, her influence can be seen in the proliferation of arm variations and back-loaded triple-triple combinations, both of which she did to win her world title. From jokes about footballers and politicians to her audacious exhibition to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” – spurring others to take on the online #TuktikChallenge, copying her strip-tease cantilever – the 21-year-old has reclaimed the zeitgeist of the sport. Close as she is transcending it entirely, the “Empress” hasn’t lost her sense of humor.

“I think I started approaching my career differently after Sochi, realizing that I just needed to enjoy myself to have good performances on the ice.

“This year isn’t the first time I’ve felt that way, and I do hope that this will work for a second season in a row, and not like last time where it took another three years.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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.

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MORE: Alina Zagitova faces unfamiliar test at Grand Prix Final — a younger rival 

Geraint Thomas cuts Julian Alaphilippe’s Tour de France lead

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FOIX, France (AP) — When one French rider starts to fade, another comes to the fore. One way or the other, France may still be on course for its first Tour de France winner since 1985.

Dancing over his saddle, his mouth wide open and gasping for air, Thibaut Pinot launched a ferocious attack Sunday and profited from the first signs of weakness in the high mountains from French race leader Julian Alaphilippe to edge closer to the yellow jersey in the overall standings.

Ascending the last uphill finish in the Pyrenees with a display of power and fluidity that signaled that he’ll also be a major contender to win the Tour, Pinot gained time on all his rivals for the second consecutive day following his triumph at the famed Tourmalet mountain in the previous stage.

Heading to the second and final rest day Monday ahead of what promises to be a climactic final week in the Alps, the race is exquisitely poised. Six riders are all within 2 minutes, 14 seconds of each other at the top of the standings.

The six terrible ascents above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in the Alps, peppered over three mountain stages, will likely decide who will stand on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees next Sunday.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

“The high mountains have only just begun,” said Alaphilippe. “The Alps are going to be a big mouthful.”

Surging from the mist and rain, Pinot crossed the finish line of Sunday’s Stage 15 in second place, 33 seconds behind Simon Yates, who posted a second stage win after a long solo raid, three days after his first stage victory in the southwestern mountain range.

The 29-year-old Pinot was irresistible when he made his move seven kilometers from the summit. Only Emanuel Buchmann and defending champion Geraint Thomas’ teammate Egan Bernal could follow. But Pinot accelerated again about 2 kilometers later to drop them for good.

Pinot moved to fourth place overall, 1 minute, 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe.

“The weather conditions and the stage were good for me, I had good sensations, I needed to make the most of it,” said Pinot. “I need to keep going up in the general classification, the most difficult stages are looming.”

While Pinot was escorted by his faithful Groupama-FDJ teammate David Gaudu in the final ascent toward Prat d’Albis, Alaphilippe was isolated without a single teammate to help him in the 12-kilometer climb and cracked, yet managed to salvage his yellow jersey.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Thomas, who had already conceded time to Pinot at the Tourmalet, remained second in the general classification. He got dropped when Pinot took the lead from a reduced group of contenders but did not panic. He rode at his pace until he accelerated with 1.5 kilometers left to cut the overall gap on Alaphilippe from 2 minutes, 2 seconds to 1:35. Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands stood third overall, 1:47 off the pace.

Thomas said after the stage he could have tried to follow Pinot earlier but instead opted for a conservative approach because he did not want to bring back Alaphilippe to the front. Bernal was with Pinot and the Welshman would not take the risk of chasing down their common rival. Bernal, a Colombian with excellent climbing skills, remains involved in the fight for the yellow jersey, 2:02 behind Alaphilippe.

“I felt better than yesterday but I needed to try to pace it when it all kicked off,” Thomas said. “It’s a difficult one, tactics wise. I wanted to go, I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel.”

Coming right after the ascent of the Tourmalet, Stage 15 ran close to the ancient Cathar castles and was a punishing ride totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced and dribbled through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Yates, the Vuelta defending champion, was given a free reign by the peloton when he took part in an early breakaway as he was not a threat overall. He made his decisive move about 9 kilometers from the line.

“I’m very proud of that,” Yates said of his second victory at this Tour.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce turns back the clock, wins another Diamond League

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce continues to show she’s just as fast as before childbirth, winning a Diamond League 100m in 10.78 seconds in London on Sunday.

Fraser-Pryce, a 32-year-old, two-time Olympic champion, beat a field that included the two fastest women of 2018, Brit Dina Asher-Smith (10.92) and Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.98).

It lacked the only woman ranked higher than Fraser-Pryce this season, Rio Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who edged her countrywoman at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

But Fraser-Pryce has now broken 10.79 three times this season, her first time doing so since 2013. She could become the oldest woman to win an Olympic or world 100m title in Doha in two months.

“10.78 is a fabulous time,” she said. “My aim for Doha is definitely to be on the podium. For me, it’s a long season from here, so I am hoping my experience will come into play.”

Full London results are here. The meet lacked U.S. stars who are preparing for this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships, where world champs spots are at stake. The Diamond League resumes Aug. 18 in Birmingham, Great Britain.

Also Sunday, Kenyan Hellen Obiri won an anticipated head-to-head with Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in the 5000m. Obiri, the world champion, clocked 14:20.36, the world’s fastest time in two years. Hassan, who nine days ago broke the mile world record, took third in a European record 14:22.12.

Swede Daniel Ståhl won a discus that included the world’s top three this year and the reigning Olympic and world gold and silver medalists. Stahl launched a 68.56-meter throw to overtake Jamaican Fedrick Dacres.

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MORE: Olympic champions, world-record holder to miss USATF Outdoor Champs