Another weather-afflicted day as World Cup racing continues in Sochi
by Sandy Caligiore
Photos taken in Sochi, Russia during rainy and warm Nov. 28 FIL Luge World Cup. Photos: FIL / Mareks Galinovskis
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Springlike weather once again dominated Sunday’s Eberspacher World Cup luge events near Sochi as the combination of track conditions and start numbers were factors in the men’s singles and team relay competitions.
Although the weather was irregular, the winners of the six medals were anything but.
After scoring a silver medal a week ago in the Beijing team relay, the American squad, with Summer Britcher and Tucker West in singles, along with Chris Mazdzer and Jayson Terdiman in doubles, settled for eighth place. Russia, a DNF last Sunday in China, captured this relay by nearly 1.3 seconds over Germany.
Starting as the fourth team on the 2014 Olympic course but the first of the contending nations, the home crew grabbed the early lead and then celebrated for over 30 minutes as team after team tried in vain to race through the slowing ice conditions, thanks to rain and temps in the 40s.
Earlier, West was the top United States slider in the singles event, taking 17th in a race that started more promising for the 2014 and 2018 Olympian. West, of Ridgefield, Conn., posted start times that were second fastest and fastest, respectively. He stood in seventh place at the break before a late second run start position with no speed in the track slid him backward.
Mazdzer, the 2018 Olympic silver medal winner, accelerated into fifth place at the mid-point of the race, but a late second run start pushed him back to 20th. Nevertheless, this was a marked improvement after not qualifying in Beijing last week, and he is now getting accustomed to a new singles sled.
Jonny Gustafson, seeking his first Olympic berth, was 24th (ninth after one run) on borrowed equipment.
When the racing materials were transported from Beijing to Sochi last Monday (Nov. 22), 30 sled boxes remained behind in customs. Gustafson’s was one of those. To this day, that gear has not left China.
In a display of the friendliness among luge nations, the Russian team gave Gustafson a sled from their fleet so he could train and compete this weekend. Given the construction and personalization of sleds for each athlete, the situation was not ideal for the Massena, N.Y. competitor, but at least he could participate.
The gesture by the home team, nevertheless, was magnanimous. It recalled a time nearly four years ago when a struggling Mazdzer, of Salt Lake City, went to the season-ending World Cup race in January 2018 just prior to the Pyeongchang Winter Games. Russian World Champion Semen Pavlichenko gave Mazdzer his sled and the USA Luge racer finished sixth, his best result in two years. Two weeks later, Mazdzer took that experience back to his own sled and raced to his Olympic medal.
Timing was everything for German Johannes Ludwig who won for the second straight week. As a late starter in the opening leg, Ludwig mustered no better than a 23rd place standing. But in the deciding run, starting close to the front of the pack, he put down the fastest time at the Sanki Sliding Center and defeated teammate and three-time Olympic gold medalist Felix Loch. The top two were a repeat of last weekend.
Ludwig clocked a combined time of 1 minute, 44.626 seconds, 0.15 of a second better than Loch. World Champion and World Cup winner Roman Repilov, of Russia, was the bronze medalist, 0.20 from Ludwig.
"These are the crazy races in the warm outdoor conditions," said Ludwig, the 2018 Olympic bronze medalist and current World Cup leader. “You can be prepared to not get all the way to the front in the first heat with the back numbers. The good thing is that the second heat will be run with the rankings reversed. That turns the whole thing around again."
Ludwig has a perfect 200 overall World Cup points, with Loch next at 170 and Max Langenhan, another German, third at 130. Langenhan was fourth on Sunday. First run leader, Kristers Aparjods, on the cusp of his first World Cup victory, saw his chances slide away in the final leg. As the final racer, track conditions slowed Aparjods to 18th for the heat and fifth place overall.
Defending Olympic champion David Gleirscher, of Austria, was sixth. Italian standout Dominik Fischnaller, fourth in Pyeongchang in 2018, was second at the intermission, but drifted well back in the final attempt. Similar to Aparjods, Mazdzer, West and Pavel Repilov, Fischnaller was victimized by the slowing ice.
With Sunday’s result, West, with a pair of top 21 placings to date, has completed two of the three criteria for Tier C Olympic qualification. A top 16 will finish that job. The qualifying process runs through the first seven World Cup meets and concludes Jan. 8-9 in Sigulda, Latvia.
After last week’s brilliant runner-up effort in Beijing, the combination of track conditions and pilot errors sent the United States well down the results list at the Sanki venue. The brightest spot in the team’s performance was West’s reaction time which was, as usual, the fastest in the field.
Through two of six team relays this season, USA Luge is currently fourth, but just four points from second place Germany. Austria won in Beijing but could do no better than sixth Sunday. They retain the season-long lead with 150 World Cup points. Germany has 131, Latvia 130, the U.S. 127 and Italy 125.
In recent years, the World Cup tour has seen a number of events such as this where weather has been a major factor in determining race runs and medals. Looking ahead to the Winter Games in just 10 weeks, races will be held at night when temps will be colder.
To give this some Olympic context, according to daily averages compiled by WeatherSpark, Yanqing daytime highs in February should be just below 40 F, with nighttime readings between 15 and 20 degrees.