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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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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