World Cup tour kicks off Olympic season this weekend in China

by Sandy Caligiore

YANQING, China – The long off-season is over and the Olympic season is about to begin as the Eberspacher World Cup luge tour gets underway Nov. 19-21 at the Yanqing National Sliding Center.

The new track near Beijing, site of February’s Winter Olympics, has had the attention of the world’s fastest sliders since the first week of November. The pandemic and related travel complications delayed the circuit’s appearance on this new course until this month. It’s difficult to imagine that as the World Cup is just commencing, in three months, the Olympic luge races will be over.

Nine World Cup weekends will precede the Winter Games, with USA Luge nominating its Olympic team after the seventh race in Sigulda, Latvia, slated for Jan. 8-9. But the process starts at the Olympic site in just a matter of days. The course design has received excellent reviews, albeit with some interesting characteristics.

“The track is very unique,” stated two-time Olympian Tucker West. “It has been a much steeper learning curve than anyone had anticipated coming in. Each day gets better and better though as we figure out the correct driving lines down the track. The World Cup race is coming up quickly so we are trying to put finishing touches on (driving) lines while also trying to find the speed.”

Yes, unique, in the shallower curve angles, uphill sections creating negative G-forces, a 16-curve layout with some very long radius turns, a 360-degree Kriesl (German for Circle), and speeds expected to exceed 130 kilometers/80 miles per hour at Games time.

And there’s the scenery, which most everyone has highlighted in their assessment of the surroundings.

“The area we're in is amazing,” stated Ashley Farquharson, seeking her first Olympic berth. “I love how close to the mountains we are and how the sunrises and sunsets are always lovely.

“The track is very different than most others and requires a different approach, but we're chipping away at it and it's coming along nicely.”

“The track is definitely different from any other in the world,” added Jayson Terdiman, who will try to qualify for his third Games with his third doubles partner in Chris Mazdzer. “The way it’s built, and shaped, it’s really hard to compare it to anything I’ve slid on before. For me, the biggest difference has been the lack of pressure in corners, making it difficult to feel exactly where we are (high or low) when exiting curves.

“Outside of sliding, the Beijing area is absolutely gorgeous. The mountains in this region are breathtaking.”

After only competing in the second half of last year thanks to COVID-19, it’ll be a full schedule for the Americans in 2021-2022. The travel schedule, in a word, is abhorrent – there are no breaks the remainder of the season other than a few days at home around the holidays in December.

The 13 U.S. athletes are part of the collection of 141 sleds from 27 nations totaling 170 racers that have been training in Yanqing for nearly two weeks. They include Germany’s defending World Cup overall champions Natalie Geisenberger and Felix Loch, along with Austrian World Cup doubles defenders Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koeller.

The 13 American athletes here include three men, four women and three doubles teams, led by 2018 Olympic silver medalist Chris Mazdzer. The three-time Olympian hopes to qualify in singles and doubles, despite a broken foot suffered in a Sochi training camp in late September. He and doubles partner Terdiman are also working with new equipment in addition to learning this new course.

Given that this is the lone pre-Olympic training for everyone prior to February, there is the double agenda of not only learning a new course, but adapting equipment and sled set-ups to this track. For the U.S., the evolution of its technical programs has redoubled over the past eight years, thanks to the involvement of team sponsor Norton/Saint-Gobain, Dow, Creaform, Stratasys, Fibre Glast, The San Diego Wind Tunnel and Rogers Corporation, all collaborating with the coaching staff year-round to create the fastest sleds possible.

“One thing that has kept our spirits high is that the new sled, even with our rough runs and mistakes, seems to have a lot of speed,” continued Terdiman. “It appears that André (Florscheutz, German Olympic medalist) has once again delivered what was promised. And I know we will get full confirmation of that once we get a few more runs under our belts and especially on tracks we already know.”

That will wait, however, until after Beijing when the World Cup moves to Sochi for two weeks, replacing the events that were displaced from Whistler and Lake Placid.

USA Luge has brought three doubles teams to China. In addition to Mazdzer/Terdiman, the team will enter Dana Kellogg with Duncan Segger, as well as the new duo of Zack DiGregorio and Sean Hollander, provided DiGregorio recovers in time from an injury.

“The structure of the track is incredible and very modern. It is extremely spectator friendly and I can’t wait to get back to racing,” commented DiGregorio.

“The new track here in Beijing is really like no other track we have been to before,” remarked Hollander. “There is very little pressure in the curves so it can be hard to figure out where you are to drive. If definitely keeps you on your toes and you have to be on the ball from top to bottom.”

Four U.S. women will hit the ice with Summer Britcher, the team’s winningest singles slider of all time; Emily Sweeney, a 2019 World Championship bronze medalist; Farquharson and Brittney Arndt. Britcher was a member of the 2014 and 2018 Olympic teams; Sweeney competed in 2018; Arndt, like Farquharson, would like to make Beijing her first Olympic nomination.

Mazdzer, West and Jonny Gustafson comprise the American men’s squad, with the latter athlete eyeing his first Olympic team.

Racing gets underway with Nations Cup qualifying Friday morning in Beijing (Thursday 8 PM ET in the U.S.). The weekend action will feature men’s and women’s singles, doubles and the team relay. Saturday doubles and men’s singles starts at 3:30 AM ET, while the Sunday women’s race and team relay begin at 5 AM ET.

All World Cup competitions will be live streamed this winter, courtesy of JFM Sports of Lake Placid, on with luge broadcast veteran Tim Singer calling the action. Singer will be joined by a group of former luge athletes who will provide color commentary for the live streams.

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