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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WATCH LIVE: Nathan Chen in U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate

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Nathan Chen tries to become the first man to win four straight U.S. figure skating titles since 1988, live on NBC Sports on Sunday.

NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of the men’s free skate for subscribers starting at 2:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. NBC joins with TV coverage at 3.

LIVE STREAM: Men’s Free Skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Chen, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore, is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics. He can become the seventh man since World War II to win four straight national titles.

Five of the previous six went on to earn Olympic gold, including Dick ButtonScott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano in 1988.

Chen carries a substantial 13.14-point lead from Saturday’s short program, where he landed two quadruple jumps on one week of full training following a flu bout.

The anticipated drama Sunday comes in the battle for silver and bronze medals and the last two world championships team spots.

Jason BrownAndrew TorgashevVincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi are separated by 8.78 points. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist, are the only men in the field other than Chen with world team experience.

Key Skate Times
5:01 p.m. (ET) — Vincent Zhou
5:18 — Tomoki Hiwatashi
5:26 — Andrew Torgashev
5:35 — Nathan Chen
5:43 — Jason Brown

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

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.

Mikaela Shiffrin, with 66th World Cup win, moves one shy of career dream

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Mikaela Shiffrin has said one of her career dreams is to win in every discipline in one season. She is now one victory shy of realizing it.

Shiffrin earned her 66th World Cup victory — and her second in three days — at a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Sunday.

She prevailed by .29 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino and .70 over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Gut-Behrami, the last skier other than Shiffrin to win a World Cup overall title back in 2016, earned her first podium in exactly one year.

Full results are here.

“Perfect weekend for me,” said Shiffrin, who moved one shy of recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third place on the World Cup career wins list. “The whole team is excited about the whole weekend, but especially today.”

She is en route to a fourth straight World Cup overall title. And she is a combined victory away from wins in all five disciplines in one season. Only Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze have done it.

“The thing that I’m most proud of right now is that I know how to win in slalom, [giant slalom], super-G and downhill, which I never expected that would really happen,” she said.

Shiffrin struggled with confidence during a winless stretch in early January, trying not to compare herself to last season, when she won a record 17 times. She still leads the men’s and women’s tours with six victories this season, a little more than halfway through.

“Every race is such a big fight, and I haven’t been the one on top of this fight every time,” she said. “Certainly I’ve been like sometimes the expectations that I have or that other people might have, I’m not quite living up to that. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing sometimes, even though this is still just an incredible season.”

There are two combined races left this season for Shiffrin to achieve the dream — Feb. 23 in Switzerland and March 1 in Italy. While combined — mixing a speed run and a technical run — might seem perfect for Shiffrin, she has one victory in four starts in the discipline between the World Cup and Olympics.

And Shiffrin is careful about her race schedule. She is undecided on entering a downhill and super-G next weekend at the 2014 Olympic venue in Russia.

“After this weekend my brain is a little bit dead,” she joked.

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