Tour de France begins decisive mountain stages before Paris

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GAP, France (AP) — Picture the final showdown in “High Noon.” But at more than a mile above sea level.

With an Alpine trilogy of stages including six climbs in rarefied air, forecasts of stormy weather and only 39 seconds separating five riders determined to topple yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe, the next three days at cycling’s marquee race have all the ingredients for an explosive and suspenseful conclusion.

In the role of former marshal Will Kane, Alaphilippe. With his good looks and heart-on-the-sleeve style of racing, he has become France’s national hero over the past two weeks, raising hopes that the host country will finally get its Tour champion after a 34-year wait.

After claiming the race lead by storm with a couple of well-time attacks followed up with a shock victory in the race’s individual time trial, Alaphilippe surprisingly hung onto the coveted tunic in the Pyrenees last week.

But the odds are firmly stacked against the Quick Step-Deceuninck rider in the Alps, a terrain with very long climbs that do not suit his punchy style. But like Marshal Kane, “Ala-Panache” — the nickname he earned this summer — is ready for a final battle.

“I can take punches in the mountains,” Alaphilippe said on Wednesday after Matteo Trentin won Stage 17, making the most of a long breakaway that Tour favorites were happy to let go. “I’m looking forward to the Alps.”

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Alaphilippe was not even born when Bernard Hinault won the last of his five Tour de France titles back in 1985. Thursday will mark the 13th day he will be wearing the yellow jersey, making him the first Frenchman to reach that tally at a single Tour since Hinault’s final win.

“One extra day in yellow, this is wonderful,” Alaphilippe said. “I will fight until the end. I’m gonna give it all.”

If Alaphilippe fails to defend his 1 minute, 35-second lead, another Frenchman is ready to take over in the person of Thibaut Pinot. The FDJ-Groupama leader has demonstrated in the Pyrenees that he was the best climber, taking time on all his rivals to make up for the time he lost in crosswinds earlier in the race.

Pinot is among the five riders who can believe they have a chance to win the Tour on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees, alongside defending champion Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk, Egan Bernal and Emanuel Buchmann.

Both Thomas and Kruijswijk, who are respectively second and third overall, were handed a blow on Wednesday, losing one teammate each on disciplinary grounds. Race organizers said Thomas’ teammate Luke Rowe and Tony Martin, who rides in support of Kruijswijk, were kicked out following an altercation. Despite the setback, the Ineos team has a double card to play with Bernal and Thomas.

Bernal is a pure climber from Colombia used to riding above 2,000 meters (6,560 feet), while Thomas is the most experienced of all contenders. He knows how to win a three-week race, and despite the minor crash he suffered on Tuesday, his morale is high.

“Looking forward to it now. Big three days and a big test,” Thomas said.

He added that Alaphilippe might be in for a tough time Thursday, with teams possibly riding hard to make him crack. Stage 18 to Valloire features two punishing and famed climbs, the Col d’Izoard and the Col du Galibier.

“He wasn’t great a couple of days ago and he’s been racing really well all race, so you’d think he’d be starting to get tired now,” Thomas said. “So, yeah, I guess teams will be thinking to try and make it hard all day.”

On paper, Stages 19 and 20 look even more difficult, with the Iseran mountain and two consecutive summit finishes. At 2,770 meters (9,090 feet), the Iseran is a Tour de France giant and one of the highest road passes in Europe where thin air makes things harder.

“Every day is going to be important,” Thomas said.

For Trentin and other already exhausted riders with no ambition in the general classification, the last stage that really mattered is now behind them. And the Italian rider made the most of it to post a third career stage win at the Tour.

With the peloton happy to the let an early breakaway develop at the start of the hilly, 200-kilometer trek to Gap, Trentin rode at the front for most of the stage and moved clear of the leading group about 14 kilometers from the finish at the bottom of the Col de la Sentinelle. He was first at the summit and went all out in the downhill leading to Gap. Kasper Asgreen was second, 37 seconds behind, with Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet completing the podium.

Already thinking about the Alps, Alaphilippe and his rivals crossed more than 20 minutes behind.

“Everybody is exhausted, it was the final day for saving strength,” Alaphilippe said. “The trilogy in the Alps will decide the winner.”

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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IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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