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Olympics / Sports

Russians ride home-track edge in bobsled

SOCHI, Russia -- In sliding sports, few forces are as powerful as home-track advantage.

The United States benefitted from it in Salt Lake City. The Canadians enjoyed it in Vancouver four years ago.

And now it's the Russians' turn.

The host country has won four of six sliding events here and now stands on the cusp of winning its fifth. After the first two heats of the two-man bobsled Sunday, veteran pilot Alexander Zubkov had a .32-second lead over Swiss driver Beat Hefti heading into Monday's finals.

American Steven Holcomb and his brakeman Steve Langton are in third place with two more runs left, putting them within easy striking distance of silver. Holcomb acknowledged it will be harder to catch Zubkov, who has had hundreds of runs on the Sanki Sliding Center track and knows the fastest lines.

The Americans have not won the two-man event in 78 years.

"The hometown guy is going to be tough to beat," Holcomb said. "He has shown that he's here to play."

Holcomb, who won gold in the four-man event in Vancouver, estimated Zubkov has taken 300 rides on the track since it opened in 2012. The American teams, by comparison, have had about 40.

To help understand the course's complexities, Holcomb said he has been studying the way Zubkov drives it. Other athletes seemed to be confounded by the track, too, as more than one pair looked shocked by their times when they crossed the finished line Sunday.

Runs that looked great have posted average times, while labored slides turned in terrific ones.

"We just don't know where we're losing time," Holcomb said. "I don't know where the fast lines are and I'm trying to find them. I've been watching Zubkov and trying to mimic him because he's been on this track more than anybody."

Zubkov struggled on the World Cup circuit this year, finishing fifth in the standings. He placed seventh in the two-man event at the world championships last year and fourth at the European championships.

Still, none of his competitors are surprised to see him atop this leader board.

"On a track that's this technical, he has a pretty big advantage," U.S. brakeman Christopher Fogt said. "That's the nature of the Games."

Zubkov, who came out of a brief retirement to compete here, set a track record on his first run and pumped his fists in the air as he crossed the finish line at the end of his second one. He later cautioned against celebrating his victory prematurely.

"Two days competition is hard and our competitors are very serious," Zubkov said. "The fight is not over."

American pilots Cory Butner and Nick Cunningham are 11th and 13th, respectively. Butner and Fogt, his brakeman, were in third place after the first heat, but dropped considerably after a dramatic skid on the 14th curve.

"On this track, it's anyone's game," Butner said. "We'll be in the fight (Monday). Two good runs and we're back."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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