Bill Demong and Bryan Fletcher led their Nordic Combined teammates to a “reassuring” start of competition this weekend at the FIS Summer Grand Prix in Oberwiesenthal, Germany. Fletcher kicked things off with an 8th overall in Saturday’s Gundersen format, and Demong led the way to the podium with a 3rd place on Sunday.
Though the Grand Prix series isn’t a World Cup event this year like it has been in the past, Demong said he and his teammates approached the races just as seriously as they would any other.
“These races are about getting us contact, which is hugely important; getting used to racing guys from other nations, skiing under fire, and just getting back in the mindset of dealing with the weather and other competitors,” said the 2010 Olympic gold medalist.
Fletcher’s 8th on Saturday, 38 seconds off of Germany’s Eric Frenzel, was his career best World Cup-level result. “I put together a good jump and a good cross country race, so I’m pretty stoked about it. It’s a great way to start off the Summer Grand Prix,” he said on Sunday, adding that it was great to be able to see that he’s on track for the winter.
Fletcher’s brother Taylor placed 21st overall, and came from a 49th on the hill to ski the 6th fastest time of the day out on the course.
Another highlight of the day was Erik Lynch’s chance to enter a high-caliber race, a rare opportunity for the 17-year-old. As part of the National Training Group that has been training in the Czech Republic for about a month, Lynch was able to take the entry spot left empty by the fact that Johnny Spillane couldn’t join the team in time for Saturday’s competition.
“Erik is 17 years old getting essentially a World Cup start,” said Head Coach Dave Jarrett. “[The NTG] was already here and it was a unique opportunity…I think he was a little bit awe-struck but he wasn’t intimidated by any means. He certainly skied pretty good.”
Demong struggled on Saturday with the jump portion, and a broken pole in the fist lap on rollerskis left him off the pace for the remainder of the race, where he ended up in 30th. Though he could have jumped better and skied faster, Jarrett noted on Saturday, “Bill knows what he needs to do.”
With Sunday’s 3rd place finish, it seems Jarrett was right. Demong, who finished 32 seconds behind the winner, Johannes Rydzek (GER), was also the first finisher across the line who had had to ski a penalty loop in the new racing format. He was reassured by how his day went, especially given the step back he took in his preparation last year. “It was my best result in a couple of years at the World Cup level…[and] it was the first real competition this season, so it gives me a lot of confidence going into the winter,” he said on Sunday.
Taylor Fletcher ended up with five penalty laps and finished 36th, while his brother Bryan finished 40th with four penalties.
Johnny Spillane returned to competition after a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus last summer left his plans after the World Cup season uncertain, and completed four penalties to finish 43rd.
Fitness-wise, Spillane said he thinks everyone is where they should be. “I think everybody is in a pretty similar spot; we’ve been training together quite a bit,” he said, though “Bill was damn good.”
“I think all three of us had a good race here,” agreed Demong. “Johnny had a bit of a wake up today, but he’s definitely fit.”
In addition to serving as a good test of their fitness, the debut of the penalty race gave everyone a chance to test out the tactics and logistics involved in a format being added to the World Cup this season. Based purely on how far they jumped, skiers had to complete a certain number of 150-meter penalty laps throughout the cross-country portion of the competition. Athletes could complete their penalties at any point during the six laps of the mass-start race, except on the first and last legs.
The trial got mixed reviews. From the coaches’ perspective, Jarrett said it was definitely interesting, but there were also issues that couldn’t have been predicted until the race was run. Chief among them was the fact that the course was too narrow for a mass start rollerski race. He said it was also hard for him to tell how his athletes were really doing throughout the competition, as it was difficult to keep track of who had already done their penalty laps.
The confusion especially affected the athletes. “There was a lot of chaos,” said Bryan Fletcher. “You had no idea where you were in the race. All of a sudden people in front of you disappeared to do penalty laps.”
The U.S. athletes went into the race with the strategy of completing the penalties when there were as few people clogging the loop as possible, with the expectation that everyone else would try to get them out of the way early and they’d have to wait until the end of the race. But when the first opportunity came and no one was in the penalty zone, Spillane said they decided to go for it.
“Tactically, it’s hard to tell if it was a good or bad decision,” he said.
Competition was also affected on the hill, where the elimination of wind compensation (and all other style points) had officials trying to send everyone off with comparable amounts of wind, causing the jumps to take twice as long as they usually do. Despite the effort, Jarrett said conditions still made the jumping “a luck of the lottery.”
“We’ve had quite a few formats in the last few years that I’d like to see introduced [on the World Cup] before this one,” said Demong. “It could be exciting, but it made the competitors wait around. The mass start meant that a lot of people caught a ride off the pack that wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Though there were problems with the format, there will be time to make adjustments before it appears on the World Cup.
“They have some formatting issues to solve; tomorrow there’ll be a meeting to get feedback from coaches, and a committee will meet on Tuesday and come up with solutions,” said Jarrett.
The FIS Summer Grand Prix continues in Liberec on Wednesday and ends with two more competitions in Oberstdorf on Friday and Saturday.
Saturday’s Complete Results (Gundersen start)
Sunday’s Complete Results (Penalty format)
— Nat Herz contributed reporting
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.