Julian Alaphilippe, step closer to Tour de France title, gives yellow jersey to boy

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SAINT-MICHEL-DE-MAURIENNE, France (AP) — One big Alpine stage completed, just two more to go, and Julian Alaphilippe is still in yellow with France yet another step closer to having a first Tour winner since 1985.

Continuing to contribute more than anyone to making this the most exciting Tour de France in decades, the French rider recovered from a moment of weakness on the lunar-landscaped Galibier pass and sped down treacherous hairpin bends on the other side to preserve his race lead Thursday.

“It was a day of folly,” Alaphilippe said.

“I unplugged my brain and I was on the limit on each bend,” he said. “I did a crazy descent, where I took risks. I wanted to save my jersey.”

Job done.

But it wasn’t a perfect day for Alaphilippe. With a decisive, well-placed attack on the slopes of the Galibier — the last of three climbs to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) on Stage 18 — Colombian rider Egan Bernal got away from Alaphilippe and ate into his lead.

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Bernal vaulted from fifth to second in the overall standings. Having started the day 2 minutes, 2 seconds behind Alaphilippe, Bernal is now just 90 seconds behind him.

“It’s very good for the morale. But Julian demonstrated once again that he is very strong,” Bernal said. “For now, I’m still behind Julian. Everything is possible. I’m in the mix but to win the Tour is difficult.”

Bernal’s teammate, defending champion Geraint Thomas, tried to make it a one-two punch by also attacking on the last hairpins leading to the top of that climb, lined by excited crowds.

But with Alaphilippe starting to wobble on the ascent, Thomas couldn’t make the offensive stick. Alaphilippe caught him again on the downhill to the finish. Thomas is still 1:35 behind Alaphilippe, as he was at the start of Stage 18, but slipped back to third overall behind Ineos teammate Bernal.

Colombian rider Nairo Quintana won his first stage, flying away from everyone on the Galibier and putting some color back into what so far had been an underwhelming Tour for the former two-time runner-up. Quintana vaulted from 12th overall to seventh, now 3:54 behind Alaphilippe.

With Quintana and Spanish riders Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, Movistar now has three riders in the top 10, a possible launching pad for the team to launch more attacks in the last two Alpine stages.

“If we find a favorable ground over the next two days, we will keep attacking,” Quintana said.

But Alaphilippe is proving tough to dislodge. He has now worn the yellow jersey for 13 stages at this Tour, the most by any French rider at a single edition since Bernard Hinault held it for 17 days in winning the race for a fifth time in 1985.

With opportunities running out for rivals aiming to unseat him, Alaphilippe knew he’d be in for a torrid time among the huge barren slopes of scree leading to the Galibier, rising to a lung-burning 2,642 meters (8,668 feet) above sea level and first climbed by the Tour in 1911.

“It was a big mouthful,” Alaphilippe said. “I had imagined the worst.”

But he continues to confound even his own expectations.

Although his lead has shrunk, with the duo of Bernal and Thomas breathing down his neck, Alaphilippe is closer than ever to the podium in Paris on Sunday.

Thomas suggested that the stage simply hadn’t been hard enough to make Alaphilippe crack.

“We wanted it to be hard but the pace wasn’t there,” he said. “The call was made for Egan to go and hopefully that would kick if off a bit, but it didn’t. That’s when I went as well, just to test. But at least Egan gained some time on everyone else.”

Two huge obstacles lie between Alaphilippe and Paris in the shape of two more Alpine stages, both with uphill finishes.

Few had expected him to hold his own in the Pyrenees and, now, on the first day in the Alps.

But he’s making believers with each extra step closer to the finish.

“No matter where I finish in Paris, this Tour will have left a mark on French people,” he said. “And I’ll have learned a lot about myself.”

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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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

Carreira and Ponomarenko
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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 19, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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