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Behind the scenes at European Championships: Day 2

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Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his behind-the-scenes look at the competition on the event’s second day.

Figure eights

“Eight… is a lot!” Javier Fernandez had suggested one year ago, after he won his sixth European crown, referring to Austrian Karl Schafer’s record of eight straight European titles (Schafer won from 1929 to 1936).

“But who knows? Maybe I’ll throw in a last one next year?” he had added smilingly, regarding 2019.

Since then Fernandez won the Olympic medal he was dreaming of – a bronze in PyeongChang. He decided to come back to competitive ice for one ultimate European try. No other skater other than Schafer and Fernandez has won six or more titles in a row.

Only one has won seven, although not in a row: Russia’s Yevgeny Plushenko. That will be Fernandez’ challenge: equal the Russian’s supremacy over Europe.

“I’d liked to have trained a bit more, but I think it’s possible,” Fernandez told the Olympic Channel a few days ago.

Michal’s practice

“Now that Adam [Rippon] and Ashley [Wagner] are gone, Michal [Brezina] has become the leader of the group in L.A.,” coach Vera Arutunian, who went along Brezina to Minsk, offered. “Michal is very smart. He knows how to train, and we wish all our skaters would train as smartly as he does.”

Learning how to train seems to be a key in skating. “Rafael [Arutunian, Vera’s husband] says that you need two years to adjust to what he wants. And it’s true: you need to give time to time. Skaters start to understand the idea after a while. Beyond technique, you have to understand how to behave in practice. It’s the same whatever the country and culture they are coming from, Asia, U.S. or Europe. It’s a matter of attitude. For instance, you can’t end a season and go travel for months. A sportsman has to keep going all the time. He has to be in a process. He can’t stop, even though his competitive season is over.”

MORE: Mariah Bell coming into her own after 2 years under Rafael Arutunian

When two old buddies meet again

Major championships provide good opportunities to meet. Two of the sport’s recent greats and crowd favorites are in Minsk coaching: Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, is coaching France’s up-and-coming Siao Him Fa.

“I don’t skate anymore,” Joubert admitted. “When I do something, I like to do it 100 percent. And coaching is such a passion for me.”

Belgium’s Kevin van der Perren, who thrilled the audiences worldwide with his quads in the 2000s, was here coaching the Dutch skater Kyarha van Tiel.

“She didn’t make it to the free [skate], however,” van der Perren regretted. “It was the worst time to miss a double Axel.”

“Besides her, I teach two 12-year-old girls who started with me from scratch. Now they can land triples, and I’d really like to see how far we can go. I still skate myself every day, and can still do my tricks. I was a guest at Dancing with the Stars in Germany last week. I love performing so much. It took too many years to learn to just let it go.”

Grand venue

The Minsk Arena, hosting Europeans this year, holds 15,000 seats. It was designed by the same architect and with the same plans as the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki, where the 2017 World Championships were held. The practice rink, just across the street, is even more impressive. Just imagine a huge 9-meter wide and 400-meter long speed skating ice track. In the middle of it, you find two regular size skating rinks: one is for hockey, and one is used as the practice rink for these championships. You even have a curling track behind. You enter and exit the practice rink via underground tunnels, under the speed skating track. Around the track are no less than 3,000 seats. The whole is reminiscent from the old open-air rinks of the Alps, in Chamonix in France, or Davos in Switzerland. Except the whole complex – about 10,000 square meters – is covered in Minsk.

But it’s warm inside

Quite impressively, the practice rink is quite warm inside, in spite of the mass of air it gathers and the outside below freezing temperature. “Look! Morgan (Ciprès) is topless!” a lady fan exulted, as the French pair champion was changing from his costume after his morning practice. We won’t disclose more in this column, however.

XXL SX in Minsk

Or: “The Spectator’s Experience is great in Minsk!”

Wednesday afternoon, for the ladies’ short program, the lower section of the gigantic Minsk Arena was full. Wednesday night, for the pairs’ short, the 15,000 stands were completely packed.

True, the event is superbly organized. Volunteers are everywhere with their elegant multi-colored jackets, they are well trained and so willing to help out, whatever the situation. People smile at you as long as you smile at them (yes, even security!), they speak English as much as they can.

Food is not allowed in the rink. Wherever rules apply, they are clearly posted. Signs are clear and visibly posted everywhere to secure the fans, spectators and journalists’ experience and make them enjoy. Even the weather is perfect, as crisp and light as skating should be.

MORE: Javier Fernandez third after men’s short program

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships 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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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