KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On his second descent down the ice, Felix Loch vaulted himself into a familiar place: first.
The defending Olympic gold medalist and Germany’s latest luging superstar, Loch overtook Russia’s Albert Demchenko on his second run Saturday and moved closer to winning yet another title.
It’s going to be tough to catch him.
The 24-year-old completed his two runs on the Sanki Sliding Center track in 1 minute, 44.149 seconds to take a 0.294-second lead over Demchenko, who was cheered on by chanting, bell-ringing countrymen lining the course and hoping the 42-year-old can finally grab gold in his seventh games.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Armin Zoeggeler of Italy (1:44.893) is third, followed by Germany’s Andi Langenhan (1:45.187).
Chris Mazdzer of Saranac Lake, N.Y., is 13th.
Loch entered these games as an overwhelming favorite to become the third men’s luger in history to defend his Olympic crown, joining Zoeggeler and his coach, German great Georg Hackl, a three-time gold medal winner. Through two runs, he is the only racer to break 52 seconds.
Unless he makes a mistake — or Demchenko and Zoeggeler somehow find some magical, speedy elixir in the next 24 hours — Loch will once again climb atop the podium.
He’s been on top for some time.
Loch won 5 of 9 races on the World Cup circuit this season, setting the stage for the defense of the gold medal he won four years ago in Vancouver. He was only 20 then, the youngest Olympic champion. Loch is more polished now, some would say nearly perfect, perhaps on his way to becoming the best ever.
“In the first run I had three mistakes,” Loch said. “That was the problem. On this track you lose so much time if you have a little mistake. It was really a close race in the first run between Albert and me, then the second run was really good and Albert had a little problem.
“If that happens you lose so much time and you don’t have any chance to get it back.”
Mazdzer, who earlier this week assessed the race as “It’s Felix Loch and everybody else,” believes Demchenko is the only one with a chance to reel in the German driving machine.
“He does have a notorious habit of going really fast or messing up,” Mazdzer said of Demchenko, who won silver at Turin in 2006. “Felix Loch has been more consistent. Is it three-tenths? I don’t know if that’s a deficit Albert can make up.”
Demchenko already seems resigned to silver or bronze. Following his second run, he stomped through the mixed zone and barely said a word.
“Everything’s all right,” he said angrily.
The first run began shortly after the sun dipped behind the majestic Caucasus Mountains, bathing the track in twilight and making the slick surface faster than during the practice sessions.
The first three competitors bettered the track record, and when it was Demchenko’s turn, the burly Russian shaved nearly four-tenths of a second off the mark. Gaining speed through the lower portion of a track he’s been down more than anyone else, Demchenko finished in 52.170 seconds.
Loch was next, and like most of the racers, the tall German rode a tight line through the early and middle turns but couldn’t produce the same speed Demchenko found near the bottom and clocked 52.185 seconds.
On the second run, Loch went third. After paddling from the starting line and pounding his spiked gloves into the ice, he dropped back on his sled and barely moved the rest of the way while topping out at 86 mph.
Demchenko couldn’t match Loch and completed his second run in 52.273 seconds.
“I am the younger man. I am I think the faster starter,” he said. “But Armin and Albert, they’re really good drivers. They can drive so exactly. That’s the thing that I have to learn over the next years, but I think I’m not so bad.”
Unlike four years ago, when Georgian luger Nodar Kumarishtavili died during a practice run the day before competition started, there were few concerns about a tragedy and no major mishaps.
The Sanki track — the world’s longest at nearly 5,000 feet — was designed to reduce speeds but also to challenge racers with three “uphill” sections. Those spots could determine the outcome of every race, since a driving error leading into the inclines could be disastrous by slowing riders even further.
“It’s really crazy to drive,” Loch said following a practice run. “If you have a mistake, you’ve lost so much time. You don’t have a chance to win anything.”
Unless, that is, you’re Felix Loch.