Mild weather, Germany, Austria dominate World Cup racing in Winterberg
by Sandy Caligiore
Above, clockwise: Chris Mazdzer/Jayson Terdiman, team trainer Dino Angelopoulos with Jonny Gustafson, Chris Mazdzer, Jayson Terdiman. Photos FIL/Mareks Galinovskis
WINTERBERG, Germany – As often occurs in Winterberg, the weather takes the headlines over luge racing and Saturday was no exception as the holiday week turned warm with start numbers, together with slowing ice, being very meaningful.
Also, how sliders executed the lower labyrinth section of the track determined their fate.
Traditionally, Koenigssee hosts the first luge events of the New Year and concludes the 12 Days of Christmas. However, when the summer floods devastated the iconic Bavarian track, a secondary site was needed and Winterberg got the call.
Against this backdrop, the Eberspacher World Cup tour resumed with doubles and men’s singles as temperatures reached the high 40s and low 50s F, and the most common reaction from the sliders after their runs was a head shake. The International Luge Federation (FIL), in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the weather on the races, lessened the interval between sleds to end each heat sooner.
Thankfully, the field of athletes was saved from precipitation as many are still attempting to qualify for the rapidly approaching Beijing Olympic Games, just over a month away.
USA Luge is in that position as currently two men – Tucker West and Jonny Gustafson – have achieved Tier C qualification status. No doubles teams have yet to check off a tier. Entering the weekend, Chris Mazdzer, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist remains very close to qualifying in singles as well as doubles with partner Jayson Terdiman. When the day ended, though, nothing had changed.
Mazdzer, who incurred a broken foot in late September, needs a top 16 to complete Tier C in singles; in Winterberg, he placed 20th. West was 23rd and Gustafson 28th. West will get the men’s start in Sunday’s team relay.
In doubles, none of the three sleds have completed a tier which sets up a one-event race-off next week in Sigulda, Latvia for possibly the team’s lone Olympic berth in the discipline. It will be a winner-take-all race within the race unless Mazdzer/Terdiman score a top five or top 10. That would give them a Tier A or C and force the teams of Zack DiGregorio/Sean Hollander and Dana Kellogg/Duncan Segger to hit the top five in the World Cup field.
In the Winterberg doubles competition, Mazdzer/Terdiman finished 16th, highlighted by a fourth-place final heat, while DiGregorio/Hollander took 17th. Kellogg/Segger did not qualify in Friday’s Nations Cup.
Above, clockwise : Chris Mazdzer, Dana Kellogg, Tucker West. Photos FIL/Mareks Galinovskis
In such weather, the athletes who can muster a semblance of consistency increase their chances of sliding off with the medals. Shockingly, the turn 13-14 combination resulted in the final heat crashes of the top two sleds of the first run.
Opening heat leaders Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, of Germany, were upended entering the finish curve and were disqualified for paddling across the finish line. Andris and Juris Sics, of Latvia, second place at the break, were headed to the podium but suffered a major error entering the finish curve – they also crashed - and drifted back to 18th place.
These surprising developments led to the first victory of the season for Germans Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt. The four-time Olympic champions sat in third place at the break and tied for the fastest final run. In winning for the 46th time in their illustrious careers, Wendl/Arlt clocked 1 minute, 27.184 seconds.
"Honestly, we would not have finished better than second under normal circumstances,” remarked Wendl.
Defending World Cup champions Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koeller of Austria, fourth after the initial leg, matched the time of Wendl and Arlt in the finale and took the silver medal in 1:27.225. Fellow Austrians Yannick Mueller and Armin Frauscher advanced from sixth to third place, 0.15 from the Germans.
It’s only the second time since last January that Team Sics has been out of the top three, however, they still lead the World Cup doubles standings with 588 points. Eggert/Benecken on 506 and Wendl/Arlt at 486, round out the first three. Steu/Koeller, despite missing two races with Steu’s broken foot, are in fifth place.
In examining the Olympic picture, the two German sleds will be in Beijing as will the two Austrian teams and the Sics brothers.
Other than a bobble entering the finish curve, Mazdzer/Terdiman executed a clean, flawless second run that offered them redemption from the first heat where they miscued at the start, put the sled briefly on its side, and lost all momentum through the ensuing sections of Winterberg’s course. They hope to use that strong second effort tomorrow in the team relay.
Meanwhile, DiGregorio and Hollander, sliding together just one year, are still learning the nuances and coordination of doubles racing.
Consistency in warm, slowing conditions. That’s what led Germany’s Johannes Ludwig, this season’s talk of the tour, to his fourth World Cup triumph of the season. In eight starts, the circuit leader has seven podium results.
"It's a nice start into the new year," said Ludwig, the Pyeongchang Olympic bronze medalist. "I still see potential in myself. To not let sloppiness get in, I'm trying to push myself and improve."
Using a fast getaway from the start handles, Ludwig’s times were third fastest in each run and totaled 1:44.679. First heat leader, Nico Gleirscher, of Austria, fell back to the silver medal when he could only register the 11th quickest second leg. Gleirscher, the brother of 2018 Olympic gold medalist David Gleirscher, wound up 0.06 from Ludwig. Compatriot Wolfgang Kindl, rejuvenated this season, climbed from 18th to third place with the best second heat. Kindl was 0.18 off Ludwig’s total.
With five World Cup events remaining on the season, the leader has 675 points. Kindl has now landed on the podium in the past five competitions and is the current runner-up with 551 points. Third place belongs to Roman Repilov, of Russia, with 430, followed closely by Italy’s Dominik Fischnaller. On Saturday, Repilov was fourth. Fischnaller, second at the intermission, was seventh.
In looking at the potential men’s field in Beijing, it would appear that Germany’s three athletes will be Ludwig, three-time Olympic gold medal winner Felix Loch, and potential Olympic rookie Max Langenhan.
Austria is less clear after Kindl as four others remain in the mix with just one selection race remaining in Sigulda.
Italy’s Fischnaller cousins – Dominik and Kevin – have separated themselves, with Leon Felderer also in the picture.
The Americans, at the moment, are hoping to get the full quota of three men into the Olympics as that number is based on the team standing in the discipline.
Due to COVID and the continuing delay of some accessories from Beijing, the FIL has stated that all teams can drop their three worst team results of the season and count their four best.
The Winterberg program concludes Sunday with women’s singles and the team relay. Live streaming is offered on Olympics.com beginning at 3:30 AM EST.