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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chinese Soar in Champions' Absence

NICE, France -- Chinese pair skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo took advantage of the absence of the two-time champions to soar into the lead of their event Monday at the World Figure Skating Championships.

Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze, who won the event the last two years, were missing after they dropped out Sunday after being informed Berezhnaya had tested positive for a banned substance.

The Chinese finished a close second to the Russians last year. Now, Xue and Zhao were nearly perfect with a high-flying routine that included a huge delayed double twist lift and a throw triple loop.

In both elements she remained airborne for what seemed like ages before finally deciding to come done to earth - or rather ice - to "Firebird'' by Igor Stravinsky.

They were the first-place choices of seven of the nine judges.

Second went to the other Russians, Maria Petrova and Alexei Tikhonov who won the 1999 Europeans after Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze withdrew.

Third were Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. Both the Canadians and Russians got a first-place vote apiece.

The pairs final will be Wednesday and counts for the remaining two-thirds of the score.

In the men's event, Russia's Alexei Yagudin used a new routine to gain an advantage over his compatriot, Yevgeny Plushenko, in the qualifying, although they skated in different groups.

Seeking his third consecutive world title, Yagudin was impressive in taking his group, nailing a quad and seven triple jumps. Plushenko skated early and was beaten by Canadian Elvis Stojko in the other qualifying group.

Since losing his European title last month to Plushenko, Yagudin has made changes to his long program, which he showed for the first time in competition Monday in the round that counts for 20 percent of the final score.

Second in the afternoon group to Yagudin was American Michael Weiss, who did nine triples in all - one more than the maximum allowed because his first jump was an intended quad that was scaled down to a triple toe loop.

Plushenko skated hours before as the first skater of the morning group.

"It was very difficult for Yevgeny to skate so early in the morning,'' said his coach, Alexei Mishin.

Plushenko fell on his opening quad attempt, then he scaled down a triple axel and put in a pair of double jumps at the end of the routine.

In winning six competitions in a row since last October, he regularly did a quad in combination and at least six triples in his routines.

On Monday, he did only four triples and lost to Stojko, a three-time world champion who failed in his quad attempt and faltered on a triple axel.

But with six successful triples he had four first place votes, enough to beat Plushenko but nowhere near the quality of Yagudin's skating.

The men were on the ice again Tuesday for the short program with the free program, worth 50 percent, on Thursday.