Geraint Thomas defends Tour de France title against different mix of challengers

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The Tour de France is decided in the Alps, the Pyrenees and time trials every July, but an eight-day stretch in mid-June turned cycling’s most prestigious event on its head.

Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome slammed into the wall of a house at high speed while training at a prep race on June 12. Froome broke his right femur, elbow and several ribs, requiring a six-hour operation that ended his season and will no doubt impact what is left of the 34-year-old’s career. Froome was third in the 2018 Tour.

Six days later, defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas, a teammate of Froome’s, crashed out of the Tour de Suisse. He was later deemed OK for Saturday’s Tour de France start in Brussels, just needing stitches above an eye. But his prep was at the least not ideal for a three-week event dubbed “the highest Tour in history” with a record 30 mountain passes and five summit finishes.

Then on June 20, last year’s runner-up, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, announced he would miss this year’s Tour following setbacks in recovering from a knee injury.

So Thomas, who last year became the first Welshman to win the Tour, will in the 100th year of the yellow jersey become the first defending champion in recent history, perhaps ever, to start the Grand Tour in the absence of the original second- and third-place finishers from the year before.

It begins Saturday with the first of three stages in Belgium, marking 50 years since the first of Belgian Eddy Merckx‘s five titles, live on NBC Sports. A 17-mile team time trial Sunday should provide an early shake-up of the general classification, but the selective high mountain stages aren’t until the second and third weeks.

“It is impossible to win this Tour unless you are a great climber,” Tour general director Christian Prudhomme said when the 106th Tour route was unveiled Oct. 25, according to Agence France-Presse.

Thomas can climb. In 2018, the two-time Olympic track cycling champion completed his transformation from a Froome support rider by winning back-to-back Alpine stages. He grabbed the maillot jaune and kept it for the last half of the Tour through the ceremonial ride into Paris.

In past Tours de France, Thomas finished with a broken pelvis, abandoned with a broken collarbone and even slammed his head into a telephone pole and fell into a ditch. Even while leading last year’s Tour, he bowed to say Froome remained his team’s leader.

Now no rider enters this Tour more sparkling than Thomas, the alpha of Team Ineos, formerly Team Sky. However, he hasn’t won a race or a stage since wearing yellow on the Champs-Élysées last July.

The other contenders are largely less heralded in the absence of Froome and Dumoulin but still dangerous.

That includes Ineos teammate Egan Bernal, a 22-year-old Colombian support rider for Froome and Thomas a year ago as the youngest starter at the Tour.

He won the Tour de Suisse a week ago and is primed to move up in the Ineos order without Froome. Like Thomas last year, Bernal has stated his allegiance to support the defending Tour champion, but as we’ve seen that can change in an instant in the Alps and Pyrenees.

Danish veteran Jakob Fuglsang boasts titles at the Critérium du Dauphiné, perhaps the biggest Tour prep event, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège this season, but he’s finished in the top 10 just once in eight Tours, and that was six years ago. At 34, Fuglsang is older than all but four previous winners, according to ProCyclingStats.com.

France’s chances of ending its longest Tour winner drought (since Bernard Hinault‘s last of five titles in 1985) increased significantly in the last month. Romain Bardet has finished in the top 10 in each of the last five Tours, including second- and third-place results in 2016 and 2017.

Italian Vincenzo Nibali is the only other man in the field with a Tour de France title (from 2014). At last year’s Tour, he fractured a vertebra and abandoned. He is like Fuglsang an advanced 34, but he is coming off a Giro d’Italia runner-up.

As for the sprinters, Slovakian Peter Sagan eyes his seventh points title to break Erik Zabel‘s record.

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.

MORE: NBC Sports launches Cycling Pass for 2019-20 season

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David Rudisha escapes car crash ‘well and unhurt’

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David Rudisha, a two-time Olympic champion and world record holder at 800m, is “well and unhurt” after a car accident in his native Kenya, according to his Facebook account.

Kenyan media reported that one of Rudisha’s tires burst on Saturday night, leading his car to collide with a bus, and he was treated for minor injuries at a hospital.

Rudisha, 30, last raced July 4, 2017, missing extended time with a quad muscle strain and back problems. His manager said last week that Rudisha will miss next month’s world championships.

Rudisha owns the three fastest times in history, including the world record 1:40.91 set in an epic 2012 Olympic final.

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Tokyo Paralympic medals unveiled with historic Braille design, indentations

Tokyo Paralympic Medals
Tokyo 2020
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The Tokyo Paralympic medals, which like the Olympic medals are created in part with metals from recycled cell phones and other small electronics, were unveiled on Sunday, one year out from the Opening Ceremony.

In a first for the Paralympics, each medal has one to three indentation(s) on its side to distinguish its color by touch — one for gold, two silver and three for bronze. Braille letters also spell out “Tokyo 2020” on each medal’s face.

For Rio, different amounts of tiny steel balls were put inside the medals based on their color, so that when shaken they would make distinct sounds. Visually impaired athletes could shake the medals next to their ears to determine the color.

More on the design from Tokyo 2020:

The design is centered around the motif of a traditional Japanese fan, depicting the Paralympic Games as the source of a fresh new wind refreshing the world as well as a shared experience connecting diverse hearts and minds. The kaname, or pivot point, holds all parts of the fan together; here it represents Para athletes bringing people together regardless of nationality or ethnicity. Motifs on the leaves of the fan depict the vitality of people’s hearts and symbolize Japan’s captivating and life-giving natural environment in the form of rocks, flowers, wood, leaves, and water. These are applied with a variety of techniques, producing a textured surface that makes the medals compelling to touch.

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Tokyo Paralympic Medals

Tokyo Paralympic Medals