Tour de France stage stopped mid-race, new leader

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TIGNES, France (AP) — In an instant, and just as it was becoming even more thrilling, the most exciting Tour de France in decades became truly bizarre, and got a new leader — Egan Bernal of Colombia — who looks all but certain to hold the yellow jersey to Paris on Sunday.

A violent hailstorm threw cycling’s greatest race into chaos on Friday, forcing organizers to cut short a nail-biting stage in the high Alps because riders were speeding, unbeknownst to them, headlong toward a road that had suddenly become covered with ice and giant puddles and cut in half by a rockslide.

Concerned for riders’ safety on mountain roads that can be dangerous at the best of times, race organizers made an on-the-spot and extremely rare decision that the stage couldn’t continue.

The shockwave was immediate and heavy in repercussions. Unable to reach the planned finish at the ski station of Tignes, organizers decided that riders’ placings would instead be based on their time at the top of the highest mountain pass of this Tour — the Iseran, at 2,770 meters (9,090 feet) above sea level — which leading riders, but not all, had just scaled when the race was stopped.

And just like that, Bernal found himself in the yellow jersey.

He flew away from Julian Alaphilippe on the climb and reached the top 2 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of the Frenchman, who had held the race lead for a total of 14 days.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

Not only is Bernal the new leader, but he also now looks almost certain to stay in yellow all the way to Paris, because Stage 20 on Saturday will also be shortened, again because of expected storms and landslides. The now truncated route of just 59 kilometers (37 miles), shorn of two of its three planned climbs, is no longer likely to be hard enough for Bernal’s rivals to make him crack.

Still, from the way he stormed up the Iseran, few could argue that Bernal would be an undeserving winner. Having powered up the climb, Bernal was speeding down hairpins on the other side, with Alaphilippe hot on his trail, hoping to save his race lead, when they received the order to stop racing.

“I don’t really know what happened. I was speeding, attacking, and everything was going well and then they told me to stop. I didn’t want to stop,” Bernal said through a translator on French television. “When they told me that I was the race leader and I had the yellow jersey, I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t believe it.”

Organizers scrambled to deal with the disarray and riders clambered off their bikes, not immediately sure what was going on. Exceptionally, there was no winner of Stage 19, because no one had reached the finish.

“This Tour is crazy,” race director Christian Prudhomme said. “We would never have imagined a day like this.”

Having made France dream of having a first Tour winner since 1985, and having contributed more than anyone to make this Tour more memorable than most with his punchy riding, Alaphillipe lost the race lead as the Champs-Elysees in Paris was almost within touching distance.

Prudhomme said the hair-raising speeds of Bernal, Alaphilippe and other riders on the downhill from the Iseran in part prompted the decision to stop the race there and then.

“We could see that they were taking risks and we knew that they couldn’t go much further,” he said. “The only thing that counts is the riders’ health and safety. It was impossible.”

Bernal, who races on the Ineos team, was 1:30 behind Alaphilippe at the start of the stage. Now, the last obstacle for Bernal to negotiate is the long final climb to the Val Thorens ski station on Saturday in the shortened Stage 20, putting the 22-year-old in an ideal position to become the first Colombian to win cycling’s biggest race.

Prudhomme said riders’ timings at the top of the Iseran were taken the old-fashioned way, with a watch. Normally, organizers furnish riders’ placings almost immediately after each stage. On Friday, organizers first provided delayed provisional standings and then tweaked the results in official standings that took about three hours to finalize.

Bernal now leads Alaphilippe by 48 seconds. Defending champion Geraint Thomas is third, 1:16 behind Bernal — not 1:03 back as organizers first announced.

Alaphilippe said he’d been bracing to lose the lead on the tough Alpine stage, but no one had imagined it would happen in such dramatic circumstances.

“I gave it all, I don’t have any regret,” he said. “I’ve been beaten by stronger than me.”

The sudden storm turned summer into almost winter in just minutes, with a dusting of white covering what had been lush summer pastures of green. A snowplow driver tried to clear away the slush, throwing up waves of water, on the road flooded with torrents of water and ice.

It wasn’t the first time that Alpine weather had thrown Tour organizers’ plans into disarray. At the 1996 Tour, what had been planned as a 190-kilometer (118-mile) stage from Val d’Isère to Sestrières was slashed to just 46 kilometers because of snow, with both the Iseran and Galibier passes not climbed as planned.

Black storm clouds could be seen looming on the horizon as Bernal went over the top of the climb.

Although Bernal was all smiles as he stepped into an Ineos car, other contenders including Alaphlippe looked disappointed. The French rider waved his left arm in disdain and swerved back and forth across the road. Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran looked angry.

But Marc Madiot, the manager of the Groupama-FDJ team, applauded the stoppage.

“Safety is the first priority and the decision to stop the stage seemed to be the only decision to make,” he said. “Imagine that the race had a continued and a rider had plunged into a ravine.”

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

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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, 18, 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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