Geraint Thomas opens gaps on Tour de France rivals in team time trial

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Just two days into the Tour de France, Geraint Thomas is already putting daylight between himself and some of the riders dreaming of dethroning the reigning champion.

Thomas, who claimed his first Tour win last summer, answered questions surrounding his form and fitness in a dominant fashion during Sunday’s short team time trial around the streets of Brussels.

His Ineos team did not win the stage but the 33-year-old Welshman gained precious seconds on rivals, including French duo Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, former Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali, climber Nairo Quintana, Adam Yates and Jakob Fuglsang.

Thomas arrived at the Tour on the back of a rather mundane season and no victory to his name.

Even worse, he crashed out of his final preparation race last month, and endured another setback, though minor, when he was caught in a pile-up near the finish of Saturday’s opening stage.

With the No. 1 bib on his back, Thomas, a former track specialist, showed no signs of weakness following his spill.

He took solid turns at the front and led his teammates across the finish line close to the Atomium, the iconic Brussels monument built for the 1958 World Fair.

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The only team riding faster than Ineos on Sunday was the Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma, which covered the 17.1-mile course in 28 minutes, 58 seconds, keeping the yellow jersey on Mike Teunissen’s shoulders.

They were 20 seconds faster than Thomas and his teammates, with Deceuninck Quick-Step completing the podium, 21 seconds off the pace.

“Looking at GC (general classification), it’s a good performance,” said Thomas. “It was a positive day for sure.”

Teunissen’s teammate Steven Kruijswijk is now the best placed overall contender, who sits third overall with a 20-second lead over Thomas and Egan Bernal, the co-leader at Ineos this summer in the absence of four-time champion Chris Froome.

Even without Froome — the dominant Grand Tour rider in recent years and an expert in the race against the clock — Ineos was still able to replicate its result from last year’s team time trial.

Dylan van Baarle, who replaced Froome in the team, was up to the task and there was no weak link on the road.

“We took some time on some good GC riders today, so it was perfect for us,” Bernal said.

Before the race leaves Belgium on Monday, Thomas and Bernal gained 12 seconds on Pinot, 16 seconds on Nibali, and 21 seconds on Yates and Fuglsang.

They opened more significant gaps with Quintana (45 seconds) and Bardet, the day’s big loser who conceded 59 seconds.

After rolling down first from the start ramp near Brussels’ Royal Palace, Ineos riders stayed in the lead for two hours until Jumbo-Visma, the last team to set off, bettered their time in an impressive performance.

Putting on a well-choreographed display, the Dutch team’s riders covered the route at an average speed of 35.5 mph, close to the record of 57.8 set by Orica-GreenEdge when they won the 2013 team time trial on a similar distance.

“We went hard from the start. We heard we were the fastest … We were flying,” Teunissen said.

The first Dutch rider to wear the race leader’s jersey in 30 years, Teunissen was a surprise winner of Saturday’s opening leg.

Surrounded by teammates best-suited for the flat terrain, including former time trial world champion Tony Martin, Teunissen did not play second-fiddle in his aerodynamic skinsuit and helmet.

“Yesterday it was a dream come true, and it’s the case today again,” he said. “It’s not that I’m getting used to winning stages at the Tour de France but it’s two out of two now and it’s really, really nice.”

Teunissen now leads teammate Wout Van Aert by 10 seconds in the general classification.

Jumbo-Visma riders monopolize the five top spots, with Kruijswijk in third place.

After two days in Belgium, the peloton will enter France during Monday’s Stage 3 which leads riders from the Belgian town of Binche to Epernay in the Champagne region.

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Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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