Luge World Cup season begins without U.S. team

U.S. luger Summer Britcher celebrates after finishing a run Nov. 30, 2019, during the Viessmann Luge World Cup at Mount Van Hoevenberg, Lake Placid. (Provided photo — John DiGiacomo)

IGLS, Austria — Germany came to Austria on the first weekend of the Eberspacher World Cup luge season and, with the exception of the home team’s top doubles sled, dominated the field.

It started Saturday, Nov. 28 with Felix Loch’s singles victory, and concluded Sunday when German women swept the podium in both singles and the Sprint Cup, while Loch added a sprint victory. In particular it was a bonanza for German Julia Taubitz as she left the 1964 and 1976 Olympic region with a trio of gold medals: singles, team relay and Sprint Cup all on one day.

But Austria had its’ say over the two days as the team of Thomas Steu and Lorenz Koeller captured the two-heat doubles event Saturday as well as the one-run doubles sprint race on Sunday.

Taubitz, the defending World Cup champion, welcomed back her teammates and new mothers Natalie Geisenberger and Dajana Eitberger with a pair of defeats as competitions proceeded through the Tyrolean fog. The latter two racers missed all of last season and qualified Friday in the Nations Cup with Geisenberger, the most successful woman in the sport’s history, winning that preliminary race. Despite less than stellar starts, Taubitz posted the two fastest run times. Geisenberger, a four-time Olympic champion, was second best in each leg, while Eitberger rallied from fifth place to the bronze medal when Austrian Madeleine Egle faltered in the final heat. Eitberger was 0.27 of a second from Taubitz. Ekaterina Katnikova of Russia, the 2020 World Champion, wound up fourth.

The race saw the Russians surprisingly out of contention as Tatyana Ivanova, who was in the World Cup chase last year right to the end, place 20th despite the two best start times in the field. Viktoriia Demchenko was eighth.

The women’s sprint race produced the exact same results, and while Taubitz has picked up where she left off, the double medal-winning efforts of her two teammates, after a year’s absence, makes a statement, too.

On a busy day for the women, Taubitz later teamed with Loch and the doubles team of Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken for a gold medal in the opening team relay of the season. It was a slim 0.03 triumph over Austria with Russia collecting the bronze medal, 0.12 off the lead. Germany’s World Cup relay win was their 40th in the 61 events held since the inception of this discipline. Italy, normally a medal contender in the team relay, was disqualified when lead racer, Andrea Voetter, missed the touch pad at the bottom of the course. After tying last year with 431 points, Italy and Russia are the defending World Cup overall champions.

Latvians Andris and Juris Sics, the ageless brothers who own three Olympic medals, rebounded from Saturday’s disappointment with a sprint silver medal behind Steu and Koeller. The sprint begins at the normal start height for each discipline but the timing doesn’t start until some 100 meters below the handles. This makes a course that is short from top to bottom even shorter, and truly makes this event a veritable sprint on this track. Italy was third and fourth, led by Ludwig Rieder and Patrick Rastner.

Conspicuous by their absences were the two German sleds that have dominated doubles racing for most of the past decade. Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt had no medals in either event here, while Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken, finishing last in the 15-sled sprint field, crashed in the labyrinth on Sunday and were fortunate to right themselves through the finish light.

In the men’s sprint race, Loch was followed by two Austrians, namely 2018 Olympic gold medalist David Gleirscher who was bumped off the podium Saturday in the second heat, and Jonas Mueller, the winner of the traditional two-heat event a year ago.

As this was transpiring in Igls, USA Luge returned to training Sunday in Lake Placid after a brief break for the Thanksgiving holiday. The team is eyeing a return to World Cup action in January, pending developments abroad with the coronavirus.

In the meantime, the World Cup tour now leaves Austria where there were no spectators in a nation that is currently in lockdown, and will spend the next three weeks in Germany.

Racing begins in Altenberg on Friday, Dec. 4 with Nations Cup qualifying, preceded by mandatory COVID testing for all teams on Monday, Nov. 30.

For complete results from Igls, visit the International Luge Federation online at www.fil-luge.org.