When Friday didn’t go according to plan for all of the Americans on the Nordic Combined World Cup, they were happy to have Saturday to shoot for better results.
When the team sprint went better on the second day of competition in Val di Fiemme, Italy, with the two U.S. teams cracking the top 10, the four members were even more excited for Sunday. If trial and error told them anything, they figured they’d have foul-proof tactics for Sunday’s 10 k Gundersen start.
First, they concentrated on the jumping hill. Led by Bryan Fletcher in ninth, the crew posted a solid set of results with Billy Demong and Johnny Spillane ranking a respective 17th and 18th in the jumps and Taylor Fletcher jumping the 33rd best out of more than 50 athletes.
Relying on racing skills they had refined throughout the season, all four Americans went on to make the top 20. Demong skied the fastest 10 k of the day for third overall – his best World Cup result in two years. His previous best was a victory in Val di Fiemme in January 2010. He went on to win Olympic gold that year.
Bryan Fletcher tied a career best of seventh in the World Cup on Sunday with the 18th fastest time. His brother, Taylor, demolished his previous personal best of placing just outside the top 20, notching 14th overall. He skied the fifth fastest on the day, and Spillane was 19th despite recovering from a stomach bug.
Japan’s Akito Watabe won Sunday overall in 28:27.8, setting a fast pace early on that Demong and Mikko Kokslien of Norway, who started 17th and 14th, respectively, did not try to reckon with. Instead, the two joined forces near the start, and skied into the race.
“Him and I like to ski a pretty similar race,” Demong said. “When we’re both skiing well, it’s controlled to start and just gets harder and harder throughout the race. [We] don’t go out crazy, just ski negative splits.”
Kokslien, who was part of the winning team sprint on Saturday, went on to outsprint Demong for second place, edging him by 0.9 seconds. Kokslien finished 3.0 seconds behind Watabe, and Demong said they were both surprised to see him in the stadium at the end.
“Honestly [Watabe] was so far in front of us at 5 k that we kind of just mentally let him go,” Demong said. “He had a minute and 20 seconds on us at one point so we were like, whatever, he’s gone.”
Demong said that was a smart strategy on his part. He was also impressed with his own tactics.
“I started off this weekend a little anxious and went out Friday and blew up,” Demong said of finishing 18th in the penalty race. “[I] went out hard, pulled away from the mass start [and] about 500 meters into the race, gapped off the field. Basically by 2 k was about ready to go back to the hotel.”
Although worn out from Friday’s race, he was more patient Saturday and helped secure sixth in the team sprint with Bryan Fletcher. On Sunday, Demong said he was recovered and ready to go, but wanted to again be patient. Skiing relaxed and controlled, he found himself in the hunt for a podium on the last lap.
“I started pulling away from the group without even knowing it,” Demong said. “Then [I] kind of had that confidence that, ‘All right, all I’ve got to do is go hard from here on out and not kill it,’ and we were left to fight it out, just Mikko and I.”
Bryan Fletcher hung with a group of 10 for most of the race and aimed to conserve energy for the end. With about 1 ½ kilometers to go, Bryan said six or seven remained in the chase for fourth place.
“It was definitely a challenging race and sitting in and not doing any work was a huge advantage for me in the end,” Bryan said. “I had a little bit fresher legs and more energy when the pace picked up .”
Taylor said he started near Austrian Mario Stecher, who helped him set a strong pace. The two skied together, and Taylor edged him for 14th by half a second.
“I felt awesome,” Taylor said. “I started dropping the guys behind me and catching more people. That’s a big energy boost so I just kept it going.”
U.S. head coach Dave Jarrett wrote in an email that the team was “psyched” with its collective performance to wrap up long weekend. “We want to keep the momentum rolling.”
“I’m pretty excited with our results this weekend,” Bryan said. “We had some chances and we didn’t take advantage of all of them but it’s there and the momentum’s going in the right direction.”
“To get a podium is great, but I think it’s even better to have the depth of the team,” said Demong, who added that he and Taylor Fletcher have a cumulative time bet for the season.
Going into Sunday’s race, Taylor was 5.5 seconds ahead of Demong, it terms of net time for all the World Cup races. Demong said he beat him by 10.3 seconds, putting him 4.8 seconds ahead.
“So we’re neck and neck,” Demong said. “And we’ve got six races left.”
On Monday, the team planned to fly back to the U.S. to train for two weeks before returning to the World Cup in Klingenthal, Germany, on Feb. 18. They opted to skip next weekend’s races in Kazakhstan.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.