PREDAZZO, Italy (Jan. 9) – The U.S. Ski Team's three world champions played a key role in a back-and-forth battle Saturday in the FIS Nordic Combined World Cup in Predazzo. But in the end, it was Austria's Felix Gottwald taking the win with Johnny Spillane (Steamboat Springs, CO) fourth. It was the Olympic champion's first win since coming out of retirement.
Spillane, along with Billy Demong (Vermontville, NY) and Todd Lodwick (Steamboat Springs, CO), were part of one of the most intense races of the season as all three had the lead at one point. It was anyone's race with just two kilometers to go. In the end, Gottwald survived the pack to take his first win in three years. The two-time Olympic champion (six medals) retired after 2007. But watching Lodwick's return last season, decided to come back himself.
Once again, the new jump scoring rules with wind speed adjustments have brought the fields closer together, resulting in pack racing. "It's a different game now," said Nordic Combined Head Coach Dave Jarrett. "It's becoming more of a tactical race than who's the fastest. More important to be the smartest guy once the pack is together."
Demong's best jump of the season put him in fourth, only 20 seconds behind Japan's Taihei Kato. The World Champion Demong knew, though, that it would be Lamy Chappuis he would be chasing, with Germany's Tino Edelman and Finland's Anssi Koivuranta chasing him.
Right out of the start, all three U.S. World Champions started moving up slowly and steadily. As expected, Lamy Chappuis took the early lead with Demong content to slowly close the gap, taking the lead of the main chase pack from the number three position. At the two kilometer mark, Spillane moved up rapidly closing more than 15 seconds in the next kilometer to take the lead of the second chase group.
At the 4K mark, the real race began as Demong's chase group merged in with the leaders, pitting seven skiers against each other with only three seconds separating them. Spillane and Lodwick, meanwhile, were hooked up with Austria's Felix Gottwald in the chase group.
"Johnny and Todd skied pretty well to get up with Bill," said Jarrett. "Bill's plan was to get in the front and ski his own race. He felt pretty good skiing but was surprised those guys came when they did and it became a long train."
At the midway mark, Demong took over the lead with Gottwald, Edelman and Spillane following. Demong held onto the lead until 7K when Lodwick blasted in front, with Gottwald dropping back and Germany's Bjorn Kircheisen moving into third. Spillane hung back in striking distance, just three seconds back.
Nearly the entire field merged together by 8K with Norway's Magnus Moan, 37th in the jump, finding his way to the lead. The Americans dropped back in rank but stayed within two seconds of the leader. With two kilometers to go there were 15 skiers within three seconds of the lead. Suddenly, the race became tactical with skiers bumping and banging their way through the pack.
"When it gets down to a train of 15 people and everyone's stepping on poles instead of skiing, it's a different race," said Jarrett. "We need to get better at staking our claim in the pack and not getting knocked around."
With 700 meters to go, Gottwald was back in the lead with Spillane just 1.5 seconds back as the huge pack began to splinter in the stretch, including Demong and Lodwick who were now around 10 seconds out.
In the final sprint, it was all Gottwald holding off Moan with Spillane fading and finishing 8.3 seconds back in fourth. Lodwick ended up sixth and Demong in eighth.
"Magnus and Felix are skiing at a different level than the rest of the field right now," said Jarrett. Moan, for example, had the fastest cross country time and moved up to second after finishing 37th in jumping. But even at 37th, he only started 1:10 back.
Ironically, the new wind adjustment scoring that has made such a dramatic difference in the racing, will not be used in the Olympic Winter Games.
The World Cup continues with another event Sunday in Predazzo.
FIS Nordic Combined World Cup
Jan. 9 – Predazzo, Italy
1. Felix Gottwald, Austria, (21/2) 24:44.5
2. Magnus Moan, Norway, (37/1) +0.8
3. Eric Frenzel, Germany, (9/8) +2.0
4. Johnny Spillane, Steamboat Springs, CO, (16/5) +8.3
5. Bjorn Kircheisen, Germany, (18/6) +13.6
6. Todd Lodwick, Steamboat Springs, CO, (12/10) +14.0
8. Billy Demong, Vermontville, NY, (4/21) +14.4
45. Alex Miller, Steamboat Springs, CO, (39/50) +3:14.7
56. Taylor Fletcher, Steamboat Springs, CO, (59/48) +4:06.1