Egan Bernal set to ride to victory in Tour de France

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VAL THORENS, France (AP) — Perpetuating the tradition of great Colombian climbers, Egan Bernal left his mark on the Tour de France in the mountains. But unlike his flashy predecessors, he is also poised to win cycling’s biggest race.

Bernal kept the yellow jersey Saturday after the last Alpine stage, and barring a crash or a last-minute health issue, he will become the first Colombian to win the Tour when it ends on Paris’ Champs-Elysees with a largely processional stage on Sunday.

At age 22, Bernal will also become the youngest post-World War II winner of the Tour.

“I still need to reach Paris, but today it was incredible, I can’t believe it. I will need some more days to understand what happened to me,” Bernal said.

Long before Bernal was born, Colombian riders like Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra conquered the hearts of cycling fans with long and spectacular raids in the Tour mountains. But for all their brilliance, they never came close to winning the race.

This year’s route, the highest in race history with five summit finishes, including three stages finishing above 2,000 meters and only 54 kilometers of time trialing, gave natural born climber Bernal a golden opportunity.

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Unlike Bradley Wiggins, four-time champion Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas — the three other riders who won the Tour for the British outfit Ineos — Bernal is not a race-against-the-clock specialist. He has built his success on consistent performances in the Pyrenees and a tremendous attack in the Alps after losing ground in the individual time trial.

“The talent is there to see, he was born to go uphill fast,” said Bernal’s teammate and now deposed champion Thomas. “He has got many, many great years in front of him. A very bright future.”

Thomas, lagging 1 minute and 11 seconds behind overall, should finish runner-up to give the Ineos team a 1-2 finish in Paris.

Weighing only 59 kilograms (130 pounds), the super-light Bernal thrived in rarefied air, and it was fitting that he delivered his fatal blow in the Col de l’Iseran, the Tour’s highest point this year at 2,770 meters.

A cycling star in the making, Bernal took the race lead Friday when Stage 19 was dramatically cut short by a landslide across the route to the Alpine ski station of Tignes and by a violent hailstorm that made road conditions too icy for riders racing on two wheels barely wider than their thumbs. He’d moved away from Julian Alaphilippe, the punchy rider who did more than anyone to make this Tour the most exciting in decades and held the race lead for 14 days, on a super-difficult climb to the Iseran. When the race was then stopped with Bernal racing away on the downhill, organizers decided the riders’ timings to the top of the Iseran climb would be used to determine the overall standings.

And that put Bernal in yellow and on course to become the first Colombian to win the Tour.

Bernal wrapped up his victory during Saturday’s Stage 20 to Val Thorens, won by 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali. Shortened to just 59 kilometers (36 miles) because of landslide on the route, it featured a 33-kilometer climb up to the ski station that was too difficult for Alaphilippe, who cracked after starting the day in second place and allowed Steven Kruijswijk to secure a third-place finish overall.

On the road to Val Thorens, Bernal shook hands with Alaphilippe, who left his mark on the race with his unpredictable attacks and strategies. Throughout the race, Alaphilippe forced the teams of favorites to rethink their strategies as they tried to topple the Frenchman.

“I don’t think it was the parcours (race route), it was the fact that Alaphilippe started so strongly, had a good advantage and was so strong,” Thomas said. “It was incredible how he stepped up and improved. A big, big well done to him. He fought until the very end. Fair play to him and his team. That was the reason why the race was raced so differently.”

Ineos was not as dominant as in previous years and, in addition to Alaphilippe’s bold moves, had to deal with challenges mounted by Thibaut Pinot’s FDJ and Kruijswijk’s Jumbo Visma. With new dynamics, the race was filled with suspense until Bernal stamped his authority for good in the Iseran.

If he wins, Bernal will achieve a feat unmatched by the Tour’s greatest champions — five-time winners Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain — who were all older when they first won.

Bernal has also proved stronger than Thomas, who threw his weight behind the Colombian heading into the penultimate stage. Bernal and Thomas crossed together in Val Thorens, with the Welshman warmly congratulating his successor.

Bernal has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top. With barely any experience in road racing, he turned pro with the small Androni Giocattoli Pro Continental team before Ineos manager Dave Brailsford signed him two years ago following his victory at the Tour de l’Avenir, the most prestigious stage race for Under-23 riders.

After competing at his first Tour last summer and doing an impressive job in support of Thomas and Froome, Bernal was set to get a maiden leader experience at the Giro d’Italia. But he fractured his collarbone in a training crash, forcing him to miss the race and 76 days overall. He returned to competition in June to win the Tour de Suisse, another prestigious title to add to his success at Paris-Nice in March.

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

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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

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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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