SOCHI, Russia -- In the days leading up to the men's luge competition, the most oft-asked question was whether anybody could beat defending Olympic champion Felix Loch of Germany.
The answer, it seems, is probably not.
Loch enters Sunday's finals with a .29-second lead over his nearest rival. It would take an uncharacteristic meltdown during those last two runs for him to relinquish the advantage, his competitors said.
"He's consistent and he can be conservative now. He'll make it down," U.S. luger Chris Mazdzer said, with a wry smile. "He's going to do well. Very well."
Russia's Albert Demchenko broke the track record on his first run Saturday, only to lose significant time after making an error on his second. His mistake landed him in second place and somewhat dimmed his hopes of winning a gold medal in front of the home crowd.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Armin Zoeggeler of Italy is currently in third, trailing Loch by .74 seconds. Zoeggeler, 40, is competing for his record sixth Olympic medal in luge.
Visibly frustrated with his position, Demchenko stormed past reporters after the race and refused to answer questions.
"Albert is under a lot of pressure," said Canadian luger Samuel Edney, who is currently in 10th place. "We can see in the next couple of runs if he can deal with the pressure."
Loch has won three consecutive World Cup titles, as well as five gold medals on the circuit this season. He posted a nearly flawless second run Saturday, with speeds reaching around 83 mph.
"I'm really looking forward to the third run (Sunday)," he said. "Whoever makes little mistakes has no chance. I'm very happy to be the first to start because I can set the benchmark and put pressure on the others."
Loch has claimed four of the last five world championship titles, but he has shown occasional weakness. His worst result in a World Cup event was a 6th place finish last February here at the Sanki Sliding Center.
Still, on most days, he's the very model of consistency.
"He's always steady and the one to watch," Mazdzer said.
Mazdzer, the U.S. team's top slider, is in 13th place after his first two runs, while American teammates Tucker West and Aidan Kelly are in 23rd and 26th respectively.
Currently ranked fifth in the world and struggling with a shoulder injury, Mazdzer hopes to break the top 8. He finished 13th in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Mazdzer posted a strong first run, but made several small mistakes on the second and dropped three spots to 13th.
"I am pushing a little harder (Sunday) but you don't want to push too hard. You want to stay in control," he said. "I'm going to be less conservative. It's all or nothing."
West and Tucker both attributed their shaky first runs to being nervous about their Olympic debuts.
"I had the jitters on the first one. I had a lot more fun on the second run," Tucker said. "I need to relax more and more. That's why this is an experience sport. The guys who've been doing this before I was born know how to relax."
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