Egan Bernal wins Tour de France, first Colombian, youngest since WWII

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PARIS — The skies over Paris were yellow, ignited by a glorious golden sunset.

The partying fans’ shirts were yellow, Colombians making themselves at home on the Champs-Elysees.

But the yellow that counted most was the iconic jersey that fit so snugly on the slim shoulders of Egan Bernal.

His crowning Sunday as the Tour de France’s youngest post-World War II champion, and its first from South America, heralded the birth of a new supernova in the cycling universe.

Winning a Tour for the ages at the unusually young age of 22 immediately prompted the question: How many more might he win?

Get this: He’s younger than the Tour’s greatest champions — five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain — all were when they were first crowned. Pity those in the peloton who also hope to win future editions of cycling’s greatest race: They could be in for quite a wait.

“I am the most happy guy in the world. I just won the Tour de France, and, yeah, I can’t believe it,” Bernal said, looking bemused on the podium in the race winner’s jersey and silhouetted by the splendid sunset.

The slightly built Colombian with a killer instinct on the road proved to be the strongest of the 176 strong men who roared off from the start in Brussels, Belgium, on July 6 on their 3,366-kilometer (2,092-mile) odyssey that delivered the most absorbing, drama-packed Tour in decades and confirmation that the prodigy Bernal is the real deal.

Riding a yellow bike, and cheered by Colombian fans who were partying even before he rattled up the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees, Bernal crossed the line with his teammate Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion who this year finished second. Steven Kruijswijk completed what Tour organizers said was the tightest podium in the 116-year history of the race, with just 1 minute, 31 seconds separating first and third places after three weeks of racing.

The 21st and final stage was won in a sprint finish on the famous avenue by Australian Caleb Ewan, the dominant sprinter of his first Tour with three stage wins. Keeping with race tradition on its final day, the 155 riders who survived the Tour rode at a pedestrian pace and in a joyful atmosphere before hitting the Champs-Elysees. Bernal chatted with French rival Julian Alaphilippe and raised a glass of champagne as he rode.

At the finish, Bernal fell into the arms of his family.

“I cannot believe it. It’s just incredible. I am sorry. I have no words,” he said through a translator. “I still can’t understand what is happening to me.”

TOUR DE FRANCE: Full Standings

Tearful Colombians celebrated their new hero.

“When I saw that he won, I said, ‘I need to go with my music to support him,’” said clarinet-playing Colombian fan Sebastian Cortes, who traveled from Strasbourg in eastern France for the celebration.

But millions of French fans who had lined the roads through east, central and southern France, and up into the thinning air of the Pyrenees and Alps, were ruing a bitter-sweet Tour.

First, their hearts soared with fabulous racing from French riders Alaphilippe, who held the iconic yellow jersey for 14 days, and Thibaut Pinot, who won on the first of seven 2,000-meter-plus (6,500-feet) peaks scaled by the highest Tour in history.

But joy turned to sorrow when Alaphilippe and Pinot’s prospects of becoming France’s first winner since Hinault in 1985 were cruelly dashed just two days before the grand finale in Paris, on an epic Stage 19 where Mother Nature became a party-pooping guest. An almighty dump of torrential rain and hail severed the Tour route just as Bernal was succeeding in ripping the race lead off Alaphilippe, who’d clung to it like a kid with a favorite toy.

“Julian Alaphilippe made us dream,” said Celestin Simon, a Parisian who cheered his hero on the Champs-Elysees in a pointy hat of French red, white and blue. “Unfortunately, there’s no victory at the end.”

Alaphilippe, more than anyone, first ignited and then stoked what will long be remembered as a Tour of fireworks. With his goatee beard and can’t-catch-me attacks that rivals couldn’t match, Alaphilippe embodied “panache,” the old-school class so cherished by Tour fans.

Alaphilippe’s enterprise first put him in yellow in Champagne country on Stage 3 and then, after he lost the lead on Stage 6, got him the jersey back on Stage 8, which he held through the Pyrenees and into the Alps.

And it was there that Bernal, raised at altitude in Colombia and at home in thinner air, struck.

Bernal flew up the Tour’s highest climb, the dizzying Iseran pass at 2,770 meters (9,088-feet) above sea level, demolishing what remained of Alaphilippe’s lead on Stage 19 and building a sizeable one of his own =.

The watch was then stopped, with Bernal way ahead, when the hailstorm suddenly coated the route with ice, amid fears that riders on tires barely wider than their thumbs could skid off into the rock- and ravine-scarred Alpine décor.

Compounding the misery for France, Pinot abandoned the race in tears, hobbled by a left-thigh muscle tear.

And that was that. The Tour that had been careening to a rock ‘n’ roll finish instead had the plug pulled on it. Landslides also truncated the last Alpine Stage 20, which still proved too long for the by-now exhausted Alaphilippe, who slipped off the podium entirely, despite getting words of encouragement in a call the previous night from French President Emmanuel Macron.

Thomas used the last Alpine climb to secure the runner-up spot in Paris, giving the Ineos team a podium 1-2 with Bernal. Third-placed Kruijswijk, a Dutch Mr. Steady, pulled off the feat of being wholly unremarkable during the three weeks, while Alaphilippe, Pinot and Bernal and others rocked.

Quite remarkably, none of the top four riders won a stage. Alaphilippe, in fifth, won two.

“Honestly, I prefer having won two stages and 14 days in yellow than doing nothing and finishing third,” Alaphilippe said Sunday.

So instead of a red-white-and-blue celebration, Paris instead got painted in Colombian red, blue and yellow.

Lots and lots of yellow.

MORE: NBC Sports Launches 2019-20 Cycling Pass

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

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

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Maddie Bowman, first Olympic ski halfpipe champion, ends competitive career

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Maddie Bowman knows she has been very fortunate. She just turned 26 years old and has already accomplished everything she wanted in her sport, halfpipe skiing.

Bowman, who won the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi in 2014, recently decided to retire from competition.

“I’ve really given the sport everything I could that was positive, and I knew the sport would be in great hands when I walked away,” she said. “So I decided it was my time to be done.

“I just felt like I couldn’t give anything else to the sport because I was a little bit afraid [of injury], but also it’s mentally exhausting. It drained my mental health for sure, but I loved doing it, and I still love skiing. Competition just isn’t for me anymore.”

The decision weighed on the South Lake Tahoe native last season. She competed at the Winter X Games for the last time, taking fifth place. She earned medals each of the previous seven years, including five golds, despite undergoing two major knee surgeries in that span.

“I was thinking [last year] that this is really hard, and I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get into the right mental state again. It’s painful. My knees hurt, but I was torn. I was torn between wanting to walk away and the love I had for the people I was around, people I competed against and just the lifestyle. I worked really hard on opening up other doors for myself besides skiing, which is making my transition a lot smoother.”

Those opportunities include activism, spreading awareness around climate change for Protect Our Winters. Bowman wants to finish her college degree and teach high school biology and health. She aims to continue public speaking regarding motivational talks and mental health.

Bowman struggled with depression between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. She is equally proud of her second Olympic performance — finishing 11th in South Korea — as her landmark gold medal in Russia. While in PyeongChang, she believed it would likely be her last Olympics.

“I had doubts if I would even make it to PyeongChang, and making it there was one of my huge accomplishments,” Bowman said. “It was such a special event. Even though I only got 11th, I skied my freakin’ heart out. I gave it everything I had.”

Bowman, the daughter of two former professional skiers, took gold in Sochi as the youngest finalist. She landed back-to-back 900s for the first time in her career (by accident after having to improvise her opening run). She did so in front of family that included 78-year-old Lorna Perpall, who wore a T-shirt that read “badass grandma.”

Afterward, Bowman spoke about friend Sarah Burke, the Canadian ski halfpipe pioneer who died after a training accident in 2012.

“It means so much for us to be able to show the world what our sport is,” Bowman said that night in Russia. “She’s here with us.

“I sure hope I, and everyone else, made her proud because we would not be here without her.”

Bowman has her own place in history. No matter how long ski halfpipe is in the Olympics, she will always be the first woman to earn gold.

“I know as our sport gets more solidified into the Olympic Games, it can become pretty national, cutthroat and competitive,” she said. “I would love to see it stay this free-spirited work of art, something beautiful like that.”

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