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.”

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

Ingebrigtsen, Cheruiyot
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Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

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