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Grand Prix Final ice dance preview: A return to French supremacy or can U.S. hang on to podium?

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Two former Grand Prix Final ice dance champions are in this year’s exclusive, six-couple field.

Last year’s champions, Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, train alongside 2018 champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. They also train with Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalists themselves, at the powerhouse Montreal school.

Having two Russian teams sets up a story-within-a-story at the Grand Prix Final as well, said NBC Sports analyst Tanith White. They’ll fight to see who can be the top ice dance team in their country as the 2022 Beijing Winter Games approach.

In an interview with NBCSports.com/figure-skating, White commented on what she expects to see from each team.

Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
Papadakis and Cizeron have three Grand Prix Final medals in three appearances, including gold in 2018. The four-time world champions were unable to qualify for the Grand Prix Final last year due to only competing once in the Grand Prix Series, but returned to their usual, dominant selves this fall. They own the highest rhythm dance, free dance and total scores this season.

Their “Fame” rhythm dance garnered attention for campy costumes. White said the French duo “do a great job with steeping the program in a level of fun and humor that I think it had in the movie.”

While other teams have used spoken words for their performances before, White said the PyeongChang Olympic silver medalists upped the ante in their free dance.

“What the French are doing, apart from everyone else, is they’re actually using the cadence of the speaking to interpret how they choreograph their movement,” she said. “Every word has a different arm movement or feeling. I feel like they integrated the spoken word component in a more a thoughtful way.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
Pairs | TV/Stream Schedule | Entrants

Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS)
In their debut at the Grand Prix Final last year, Sinitsina and Katsalapov took silver. Later in the season, the Russians were runners-up again at the world championships. However, as highly emotional skaters, White noted there were “a lot of mistakes flying in between these beautiful moments.” But for this season, she said the team seems to have a more stable foundation. They are able to focus on what they need to do, and that’s stay clean through a performance.

“I think they had a few growing pains with their rhythm dance in particular as they moved through the Grand Prix,” White said. “They have a chance to really show a wow moment in the rhythm dance I think to set themselves up well for the free dance. It hasn’t been perfect yet, and maybe this is their chance to show that first perfect outing of that program.”

Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN)
The Canadians made their only previous appearance in the Grand Prix Final in 2014, when they finished fifth. They placed between sixth and eighth at the world championships every year since.

“They have expressed the frustration of being seemingly locked into that level for a little while,” White said. “Feeling like, ‘What else do you want from us? What else can we do?’ They are ever the innovators. Their work ethic is always evident.”

This year, after navigating personal and professional hardships, they return to the Grand Prix Final ready to tap into these emotions.

“I think sometimes when they stretch themselves to be innovative and to choose original themes, it sometimes isn’t as easy to grab onto emotionally for a viewer,” White said. “This year, I feel like they took their experiences from their real life, their honest emotions, and the trust that they have with one another and put it in a program where you just feel like this is them skating from a very honest place.”

Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA)
The two-time and reigning U.S. champions have four total appearances in the Grand Prix Final. Last year, they became the first U.S. couple to win the Grand Prix Final since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013. Hubbell doesn’t see any reason they can’t do it again.

“We are going into the Grand Prix Final as defending champions this season, and last year we entered having never medaled,” she told NBC Sports. “The difference in our approach this season has mostly been in the way that we trained in preparation for the event… a focus on quality, detail, and consistency.”

White agreed, adding their ability to tweak a program greatly within a season will serve them well. Hubbell and Donohue competed in the first two Grand Prix events this fall and have had relatively longer to work out any kinks in time for the Final.

“They can really give a completely new impression of a program once they’ve found what makes them tick within it,” White said. Plus, in the rhythm dance, “from the second [Hubbell] steps out onto the ice with that dress, and that hair, and her attitude, and presence, it feels like ‘Of course. Of course, she should be Marilyn Monroe.”

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue continue U.S. ice dance legacy

Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS)

Last year was Stepanova and Bukin’s debut at the Grand Prix Final, where they finished in fourth place. The competition-within-the-competition is an important story line here, White said, as the Russian teams duke it out to see how will be the country’s top dance team headed to the 2022 Olympics.

“I think that they are trying to refine their skating, especially with their free dance this season,” she said. “Show that they can be elegant because they are a very acrobatic team – to great effect. It’s very exciting to watch what they can do. But this season they’re trying I think to show a little more elegance, a little more maturity with their free dance… if they can hone in on the ultimate sophistication of what they bring to the ice, it will serve them very well.”

Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)
Chock and Bates made four straight appearances at the Grand Prix Final from 2014-17, claiming two silver medals. They sat out the circuit last year, but White was excited to see how well they were being received this season – especially after changing training locations to Montreal in the midst of Chock’s recovery from ankle surgery.

“This year we are definitely in a good frame of mind after a strong start to the season,” Bates told NBC Sports. “Our absence last year made us realize how much we missed it and only strengthened our desire to get back to this point. Now we are focused on improving on our Grand Prix performances and challenging for a spot on top of the podium.”

A spot on the podium at the Grand Prix Final, and even challenging for the top spot at U.S. Championships in January, White expected.

“The free dance is their standout program this season,” White said. “Best of all, you watch a Final warm up group with them in it – that program is going to set itself apart and break up and potential monotony between lyrical programs, or everyone in black costumes. They are gonna come out and just deliver these fully characters of the snake and the snake charmer and it was a wise choice.”

MORE: Chock, Bates return to Grand Prix circuit with ‘new power’

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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Tour de France race of truth to decide champ; Peter Sagan’s run likely ends

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The stage is set to decide the Tour de France winner on Saturday.

After Soren Kragh Andersen of Denmark won Friday’s 19th stage of 21, where the overall leaders finished together, eyes turn to Saturday’s 22-mile individual time trial — otherwise known as the race of truth (6:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold).

A Slovenian is extremely likely to win a Tour title for the first time.

Primoz Roglic, a former world junior team champion ski jumper, has been in the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks. He leads countryman Tadej Pogacar by 57 seconds going into the last two stages. Sunday’s finisher is a ceremonial ride into Paris where the leaders are not expected to attack each other.

Miguel Angel Lopez of Colombia, who crashed directly into a road sign on the first stage, is in third, 1:27 behind Roglic. Lopez is 1:39 ahead of fourth-place Australian Richie Porte.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Stage 20 Time Trial Notable Start Times
10:46 a.m. ET — Sepp Kuss (USA)
11:08 — Richie Porte (AUS)
11:10 — Miguel Angel Lopez (COL)
11:12 — Tadej Pogacar (SLO)
11:14 — Primoz Roglic (SLO)

Even with a finishing first-category climb, the time trial distance of 22 miles makes it difficult for Pogacar to make up 57 seconds on Roglic. Pogacar beat Roglic in the national time trial championship in June — by nine seconds on a 9.7-mile course.

“Tomorrow it’s all on me,” Roglic said, according to Cyclingnews.com. “The team has done an amazing job, I have the [yellow] jersey, but we have all worked for it.”

Pogacar, at 21, is bidding to become the youngest Tour de France podium finisher since 1909, according to ProCyclingStats.com. Last year, he became the youngest podium finisher in any Grand Tour since 1974 by placing third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic.

“If I’m on a good day, it’s a course that suits me well,” Pogacar said of the time trial. “If someone told me I’d be in this position before the Tour. I would never have believed them.”

The Slovenians from different teams owned this Tour while defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia and the formerly dominant Ineos Grenadiers struggled and eventually abandoned on Wednesday.

One competition that all but wrapped up Friday was for the green jersey going to the Tour’s top sprinter.

Sam Bennett is in line to become the second Irishman to win that title after Sean Kelly, who did so four times in the 1980s.

Bennett goes into the weekend with a 55-point lead over Slovakian Peter Sagan, who won the title in each of his last seven Tours that he has finished, a record total.

With a maximum 70 points available for one sprinter left, Bennett would clinch the title by finishing eighth on Sunday and picking up a handful of intermediate sprint points.

MORE: Slovenia’s president is all about the Tour de France

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2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France standings for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey through stage 18 of 21 …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 83:29:41
2. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — +:57
3. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +1:27
4. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:06
5. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +3:28
6. Enric Mas (ESP) — +4:19
7. Adam Yates (GBR) — +5:55
8. Rigoberto Uran (COL) — +6:05
9. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:24
10. Alejandro Valverde (ESP) — +12:12
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +17:48
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +35:54
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +57:49
30. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:56:21
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:11:36
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 319 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 264
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 250
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 173
5. Caleb Ewan (AUS) — 158

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74 points
2. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 72
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 83:30:38
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +3:22
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:35:35
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:51:32
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:10:21

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