Tour de France, living up to wide-open billing, saving its best for last

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NIMES, France (AP) — A Tour de France jam-packed with unexpected plot twists is saving its biggest surprise for last.

With six riders within reach of the podium heading into the toughest final stages in the Alps, the race that resumes Tuesday after the final off-day is tantalizingly poised.

Furious racing over the first 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) through Belgium and France and the uncertain outcome ahead of the grand finale in Paris are conspiring to deliver the most engrossing Tour in recent memory.

Like a summer rain, the suspense of still not knowing who will win with just six of the 21 stages remaining is exquisitely refreshing for cycling’s greatest race after years of implacable domination by the uber-rich, super-calculating British Ineos team, formerly Sky.

“Nobody is really controlling the race as such. It’s way more exciting but it’s more like chess in another sense. It’s brilliant fun,” Ineos team boss Dave Brailsford said on Monday’s rest day. “We’ve sat here on the second day of a Grand Tour so many times and people say we’ve closed the race down and it’s not been exciting. That’s not been the case this time. It’s fun to be involved in one of most exciting editions in a long time.”

Either one of Geraint Thomas, Ineos’ struggling defending champion, or Thibaut Pinot, the French climber who rebounded in the Pyrenees from what had seemed a decisive loss of time on the flat before the mountains, could still ride up the Champs-Elysees in the iconic yellow jersey on Sunday.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

A Pinot victory would trigger delirium across France, which has had no homegrown champion to celebrate since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and suffered the indignity of many years when Lance Armstrong and other dopers hijacked the race that is as much part of the French national identity as romance and the baguette.

But Thomas’ Colombian teammate Egan Bernal or dark horses Steven Kruijswijk from the Netherlands and German rider Emanuel Buchmann could put French champagne back on ice.

Making few waves and avoiding the misfortunes, mistakes and big off-color days that sank other riders’ title hopes, they’re very much in the podium picture. But their stealthy consistency could hit its limits in the Alps, where conservative riding might not be enough to win if Pinot and others attack, as expected.

Just 39 seconds — practically nothing in cycling, where riders often lose minutes when they wilt on big climbs — separate Thomas, in second place overall, from Buchmann, in sixth. Kruijswijk is third, Pinot fourth and Bernal fifth.

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.

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Iran banned from judo for instructing athlete to withdraw rather than face Israel opponent

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Iran has been banned from international judo for instructing one of its athletes to withdraw from August’s world championships rather than face an Israeli judoka.

The International Judo Federation said Iran authorities instructing Saeid Mollaei to withdraw rather than face Israeli judoka Sagi Muki was “a serious breach and gross violation” of its code of ethics and the Olympic Charter.

IJF spokesman Vlad Marinescu said any ban won’t apply to the Tokyo Olympics. That’s because it’s the Iranian Olympic Committee, not the Iranian Judo Federation, which formally enters the Olympic team.

“We have been informed by IJF that they will launch a proper procedure giving all concerned parties the right to be heard,” an International Olympic Committee spokesperson said. “Should the issue become an Olympic issue we will take the result of this procedure into consideration.”

An IJF disciplinary commission said it “has a strong reason to believe that the Iran Judo Federation will continue or repeatedly engage in misconduct” given its history of similar actions with its athletes potentially facing Israelis.

Mollaei, a 2018 World champion, said he was afraid to return to Iran after disobeying those orders at worlds. He competed anyway but lost one round before a potential final with Muki.

“I want to compete wherever I can,” Mollaei said in a statement from the IJF. “I live in a country whose law does not permit me to. We have no choice, all athletes must comply with it. All I did today was for my life, for a new life.

“I need help. Even if the authorities of my country told me that I can go back without any problems, I am afraid.”

The IJF said it would help Mollaei prepare for next year’s Olympics, also in Tokyo. If Iran refuses to enter him, one option could be the International Olympic Committee-backed team of refugee athletes.

Iranian sports teams have for several decades had a policy of not competing against Israelis, which the country does not recognize. The IJF has said Iranians have thrown matches and used “questionable injuries” to avoid competing against Israelis.

Mollaei’s case came four months after judo officials hailed a breakthrough in relations with Iran, publishing a letter signed by Salehi Amiri pledging to “fully respect the Olympic charter and its non-discrimination principle.”

Back in August, Iranian Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar accused the IJF of trying to “create problems” with Mollaei, the IRNA news agency reported. He said Iran will send a protest letter to the IOC.

Iranian team manager Majid Zareian also criticized the IJF, saying “everything was set in advance to put Mollaei against a participant from (Israel).”

“They did not allow me to be present next to my athlete in exercise salon,” Zareian said. “After the competitions they changed hotel of Mollaei without my permission, against the regulations.”

He denied reports Iranian authorities had put pressure on Mollaei.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Israel, judo federation hail letter from Iran; Tehran silent

Jacarra Winchester, after foe bites her, wins first wrestling world title

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Jacarra Winchester missed the Rio Olympic wrestling trials after tearing her knee playing soccer. She missed a medal at the 2018 World Championships after a semifinal-winning takedown was reversed.

There was no denying her on Wednesday.

Winchester, who picked up wrestling a decade ago as a high school junior, became the first American to earn a medal at the worlds in Kazakhstan this week. And it was gold.

She came back to beat Japanese Nanami Irie 5-3 in the final of the 55kg division, a weight class that is not on the Olympic program. Winchester must move to 53kg or 57kg next year.

But for now she can celebrate quite a journey. At 26, she’s one of the older wrestlers to become a first-time world champion. She believed she had what it took last year, when a reversed call kept her from the final and she subsequently lost a bronze-medal match.

Winchester, who has problems sleeping, said she replayed the end of that semifinal in her head ever since.

“There’s no reason why I should have gotten beat,” she said Wednesday. “Clearly I have what I need on the mat. I just need to change my mindset. … Just knowing you’re the best, pushing yourself and not letting anything get to me.”

That helped in Tuesday’s semifinals, where Winchester said her Turkish opponent bit her, pulled her hair and twisted her fingers. Winchester, who grew up in the Oakland, Calif., area, said that when she started wrestling she had no Olympic goals.

“I had a mindset of I’m not a quitter,” she said.

Earlier Wednesday, Adeline Gray reached Thursday’s 76kg final, where she will try to become the first American to earn five world titles.

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