Julian Alaphilippe wins Tour de France Stage 3, takes yellow jersey

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EPERNAY, France (AP) — He was sweating, baked by the sun, and burning through his energy reserves. But, under the intense pressure of being pursued by the chasing pack of riders at the Tour de France, Julian Alaphilippe also stayed as cool as a chilled glass of Champagne.

The French rider’s sparkling and poised Stage 3 ride on Monday into Epernay, the Champagne town that exports bubbly worldwide, delivered a first victory for France at this Tour and the country’s first yellow jersey since 2014 when Tony Gallopin held the race lead for one day.

The manner of Alaphilippe’s win — surprising other pretenders for the stage victory with a devastating burst of speed on a sharp climb and then gritting his teeth as he rode solo to the finish — oozed what the French call “panache,” or pure class.

He’d long targeted the stage, with its final section of sharp hills among the Champagne vineyards, as suiting his explosive strengths, and executed his plan to perfection.

Cheered on by thick roadside crowds, Alaphilippe delivered the decisive blow on the Cote de Mutigny, the steepest of four notable hill climbs heading toward Epernay.

“I did exactly what I’d planned to do,” he said. “When it works, you have to savor it.”

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Jumping out of the saddle to hammer on his pedals up the final part of the 12% incline, Alaphilippe caught other riders cold.

“A very strong attack. I was surprised,” said Peter Sagan, the equally explosive Slovak who’d also been eyeing the stage to add to his collection of 11 career stage victories at the Tour.

But as the pack then reacted and laid chase, eating into his meager lead of around half a minute, victory for Alaphilippe was by no means guaranteed.

Tongue lolling in the heat, the leader of the Deceuninck-Quick Step team kept his pursuers at bay for 16 long and lonely kilometers (10 miles), speeding alone up Epernay’s cobbled Champagne Avenue heaving with sun-baked fans to the lung-busting uphill finish.

By the time he sped past a statue of Dom Perignon, a monk who lent his name to James Bond’s favorite brand of Champagne, it became clear Alaphilippe wouldn’t be caught.

“Winning the stage in this manner is the most beautiful way to start this Tour,” Alaphilippe said. “This opportunity offered itself up and I had to seize it.”

He was overcome with emotion, barely able to speak through tears, at the prospect of slipping into the canary-yellow leader’s jersey for the first time in his career. He took the race lead from Mike Teunissen, a Dutch sprinter who won it on Stage 1 and held it on Stage 2 but who wilted on Epernay’s vineyard-covered hills.

It was Alaphilippe’s first stage victory at this Tour and third in his career. He also won two stages on the Tour last year.

“I so dreamed of this scenario and I thought of my family in front of the TV,” he said. “Incredible.”

Although relatively flat for much of the way, the furious hilly finale of the 215-kilometer (134-mile) trek from the Belgian town of Binche offered more inklings about the fitness of main contenders for the overall victory in Paris on July 28.

Defending champion Geraint Thomas couldn’t quite stay with his Ineos teammate Egan Bernal up the final incline. Bernal pipped Thomas by five seconds, strengthening suspicions that the lithe Colombian climber could he hard to contain in the Tour’s mountains, with the first climbing stage fast approaching in Stage 6 on Thursday.

French climber Thibaut Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014, also sped in with Bernal’s small group ahead of Thomas and other title contenders.

“Short, steep climbs aren’t necessarily what I love,” Thomas’ team quoted him as saying. “I wasn’t dancing up the climbs but I felt OK. I didn’t want to do more than had to be done.”

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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