Don’t call the Americans ungrateful. They were happy to be on snow in Kuusamo, Finland, competing for the first time, jumping when they could.
But they’re happy to be moving on to Lillehammer, Norway, for the second weekend of the nordic-combined World Cup. The first one was challenging enough.
After U.S. veteran Johnny Spillane was eliminated from the competition before it started, missing out a qualifying jump on Friday, the team suffered another blow Saturday morning. Windy conditions made the 142-meter hill — the largest on the circuit — off-limits.
There would be no jumping on the second day of competition. The provisional jumps taken Friday would count.
Billy Demong said he heard the official decision around 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The jumps, originally scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., were canceled and the remaining 10-k race was pushed back until later that afternoon.
That gave Demong and his two teammates, Bryan and Taylor Fletcher, time to prepare. While a nordic-combined skier wears many hats, Demong said the change allowed them to focus on one element of competition. After Demong ranked 30th in the provisional jump and Bryan was 25th, they needed all the strength they could muster to work their way to the top.
The preparation worked, as Demong worked his way to 19th with the 11th-fastest ski and Bryan finished 20th with the 12th-fastest time.
Taylor Fletcher narrowly missed scoring World Cup points in 33rd after ranking 42nd in the provisional jump. Despite starting that far back of 50 competitors, he was the ninth-fastest skier on Saturday.
“All the guys had a solid race,” U.S. head coach Dave Jarrett wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “The weather today was nasty and they made the right call not to jump today. However the conditions yesterday were also challenging but that is the way it goes sometimes.”
Demong had a feeling the decision was coming. Once they knew they wouldn’t be jumping Saturday, he said they were able to open up their day to other important activities.
“Obviously with the elimination of the jump we had time to be normal guys … and eat a leisurely lunch,” Demong wrote in an email. “Then as Cross Country guy takes over it’s time for feet up watching the cross country races on TV, hydrating and eating a bit until the last minute and then doing the real work.
“Bottom line,” he added. “I got to focus on being cross country Bill today!”
The channeled energy allowed Demong to test his limits and fitness.
“I was having a really hard time catching and staying with Bryan,” he wrote. “It was only because it was my teammate that I was able to keep clawing forward as he caught and passed people. My biggest hope was that he would not ask me to lead because I was dying.”
For Bryan, who started too fast in Friday’s race and ended up 34th in the ski, Saturday was about being smart.
“In the big picture my goal today was to ski slow to fast,” he wrote in an email. “Just ski faster than yesterday.”
Feeling better in his legs than Friday, Bryan was able to stick with Demong and produce negative splits. Demong finished the 10 k in 26:44.5 and ended up 2:38.2 behind the winner, Tino Edelmann of Germany. Bryan clocked the next-fastest time of 26:57 (+2:40.7).
While both said they were finding their groove in both the races and on the hill, they understood that it was early in the season.
“Kuusamo is a really tough place to start for Nordic Combined,” Demong wrote. “Big climbs on challenging courses make for some really hard races. The ski jump is the biggest hill we jump all year, now add the wind AND make it first … as in nobody has jumped a big hill on snow yet this season, we all roll the dice.”
Taylor wrote in an email that it could be worse: it was -20 degrees Celsius there last year, and this year, it was zero degrees. But with warmer conditions come strong wind, he wrote.
“It has been very challenging with the jumping,” Taylor wrote. “I was jumping very well back in Park City, but the break between Park City and here was a little long and made for challenging competition.”
Most of the nordic-combined athletes in Kuusamo were unable to get a practice jump in all week before Friday.
“I am very happy with my XC form at this present time,” Taylor wrote after ranking seventh in Friday’s race. “Two top 10 times on WC is something to be very happy and optimistic about, since it should get better with time! XC skiing is something I can always lean on to turn a day around from a bad jump.”
Jarrett is confident their jumping and overall results will only improve.
“We know with our normal jumping and racing we can fight for the podium,” he wrote.
Atop the podium on Saturday was Germany’s Edelmann, who was third in Friday’s competition. That day, he logged the best provisional jump (134.5 meters) and managed to place first despite ranking 29th in the ski.
It was Edelmann’s second World Cup victory and granted him the overall leader’s yellow jersey.
Janne Ryynaenen (FIN) was second on Saturday (+8.0) with the second-best jump and 26th-fastest ski. Japan’s Akito Watabe, who was second on Friday, pulled off another podium with a solid 5th-place jump and 5th-fastest ski.
Haavard Klemetsen (NOR) started fourth, but lost his positioning in the ski and ended up fifth (+26.3), after Alessandro Pittin (ITA), who was the fastest in Saturday’s 10 k in 26:01.
Friday’s winner, Magnus Krog (NOR) ended up sixth (+33.5).
In the overall World Cup standings, Bryan Fletcher was 18th and Demong ranked 19th.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.