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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As Ilia Malinin ponders quintuple jump, figure skating may face an urgent matter

Ilia Malinin
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SAN JOSE, California – The subject of a five-revolution jump was sure to come up, now that Ilia Malinin has become the first person to land a fully rotated quadruple Axel, which has four and one-half revolutions in the air.

And, in Malinin’s case, to land it cleanly not only once but three times this fall, the most recent with stunning command at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Rafael Arutunian, who coaches Malinin intermittently, said via telephone that he and the skater talked about a quintuple when they were working together in California during the high school senior’s recent holiday break.

“I was basically saying a five-revolution toe loop can be done,” Arutunian said. “He agreed and was smiling.”

“It is definitely in the back of my mind right now,” Malinin, 18, said in media conference call last week. “It’s very hard to think of it at this moment because it’s still pretty much the middle of the middle of the season. I think after the season I’ll think about it, and maybe we will see one.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

With a laugh, Arutunian described the impish plan he is dreaming of for Malinin to make the attempt.

The jump would come out of the blue.

This is the scenario: Arutunian would ask Malinin, favored to win his first senior U.S. Championship title this weekend in San Jose, not to publicize his practicing a quint on social media, as he had done with the quad Axel and many of the unprecedented jump combinations he tries.

“He would just come out and do it in a competition, and that would be a shock, right?” said Arutunian, who guided Nathan Chen to the 2022 Olympic title. “Imagine what the officials would do then.”

As it turns out, the officials would do literally nothing. Under current rules, Malinin would get zero points for the jump, as quintuple jumps are not yet recognized or given a value in the sport’s Scale of Values (SOV).

That is something U.S. Figure Skating president Sam Auxier plans to discuss with Fabio Bianchetti, head of the International Skating Union’s singles and pairs technical committee, when the two are to meet at next month’s Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs.

“I believe Fabio and the technical committee will update the SOV soon, and if anyone is practicing (a quint) and may try it, they will get the change in before it is done in competition,” Auxier said in a text message. “With Ilia, I think that needs to be urgent!”

Even before such a rules change is made, Auxier said, if competition officials were aware a skater was planning to attempt a quint, they would ask for an emergency ruling and have the tech team add a value into the computer system used to calculate scores.

“We wouldn’t let it be zero,” Auxier said. “However, if someone did it with no warning … that would be a problem.”

Bianchetti does not feel the same sense of urgency.

“So far the prospect of executing quintuple jumps seems remote,” Bianchetti said in an email. “We are not aware of any quintuple jump correctly executed and full rotated having been done even in practice.

“Therefore there is not an urgent need to add quintuple jumps in the SOV. In any case it is something we will discuss in the near future.”

For now, then, everyone can continue to marvel at Malinin’s quad Axel. He said the jump has not become a burden and isn’t worried about fans being disappointed if he doesn’t attempt one, as Malinin has in all five of his competitions so far this season.

“Some people might think that (it is a burden),” he said. “My priority is focusing on what I’m doing in practice. I have been sticking with it, and I am planning to attempt it (in the free skate at nationals.)”

The irony is the risk on the jump seems greater than the reward, given the quad Axel’s surprisingly low base value as compared to its difficulty and uniqueness.

“I have always prided myself on looking for a challenge,” Malinin said.

At 12.5 points, the jump is worth just one point more than a four-revolution quad Lutz. Yet 23 men and women have been credited with a fully rotated quad Lutz a total of 228 times in international competition, according to skatingscores.com.

Until the SOV revision for the 2018-19 season, when no one had landed a quad Axel, it was worth 15.0. All quads had their base values lowered in 2018, but the Axel had the biggest percentage drop.

“It should definitely be worth more, and we will ask that be considered also,” Auxier said. “(A base value of) 12.5 doesn’t reflect the true difficulty of the jump.”

Bianchetti sees it differently. His perspective is affected by a general feeling many in the sport share that jump pyrotechnics have become too big a factor in determining results.

“As to the value of the quad Axel, the matter to change its value is not on the agenda at the moment,” Bianchetti wrote. “A discussion to make some changes on the value of the jumps should include a general evaluation on all the jumps, not only the quad Axel, to have a more correct proportion between the various jumps but taking also into consideration the fact that the weight of the jump elements in total is already too high with respect to the other not jumping elements and the components marks.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
U.S. Figure Skating
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The U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in some ways marking a new era in the sport, air live from San Jose, California, on NBC Sports, USA Network and Peacock.

After last February’s Olympics, U.S. figure skating saw its greatest turnover from one season to the next in more than 20 years.

Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, the top two men last season, are not competing this season and may be done altogether. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell, the top two women, retired. As did the top ice dance couple of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, last year’s national pairs’ champions, also left the sport.

So, for the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships feature a reigning national champion in just one of the four disciplines.

Amid all that, U.S. skaters performed well in the fall Grand Prix Series and made the podium in all four disciplines at December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time. Note the absence of Russian skaters, banned from international events due to the war in Ukraine.

At nationals, skaters are vying for spots on the team — three per discipline — for March’s world championships in Japan.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old from Virginia, is the headliner after becoming the first skater to land a quadruple Axel, doing so at all four of his events this season. He ranks second in the world by best total score, a whopping 38.28 points ahead of the next American (Camden Pulkinen).

Jason Brown is the lone Olympian in the men’s field, competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Games.

Isabeau Levito, 15 and a reigning world junior champion like Malinin, took silver at the Grand Prix Final against the world’s other top skaters. She enters nationals with a best score this season 18.13 points better than the next American, Amber Glenn. Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympian coming back from foot and ankle injuries, is also a threat to gain one of the three women’s spots at worlds.

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the lone defending national champions and will likely make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record.

Bates, who last year at 32 became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle Kwan, Nathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

In pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier return after missing nationals last year due to Frazier contracting COVID-19 the week of the event. Since, they posted the best U.S. pairs’ finish at an Olympics in 20 years, the first world title for a U.S. pair in 43 years and the first Grand Prix Final medal ever for a U.S. pair.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Live Broadcast Schedule

Day Event Time (ET) Platform
Thursday Pairs’ Short Program 3:30-5:45 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 6:30-9 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 7-9 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Women’s Short Program 9:10 p.m.-12 a.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Women’s Short Program 10 p.m.-12 a.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Friday Men’s Short Program 4:10-7 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Short Program 5-7 p.m. USA Network
Women’s Free Skate 7:45-11 p.m. Peacock
Women’s Free Skate 8-11 p.m. NBC
Saturday Free Dance 1:45-4:30 p.m. Peacock
Free Dance 2:30-4:30 p.m. NBC
Pairs’ Free Skate 7:30-10 p.m. Peacock
Pairs’ Free Skate 8-10 p.m. USA Network
Sunday Men’s Free Skate 2:30-6 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Free Skate 3-6 p.m. NBC

*All NBC and USA Network broadcasts also stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.