U.S. Olympian Bryan Fletcher explains the subtle art of Nordic combined
December 27, 2017
For those that haven't seen Nordic combined, think of it a little bit like cycling. Basically, the athletes will all go through a full-sized ski jump, which establishes the order in which they then compete in a 10K Nordic race. But during this weekend's event, there will be a handful of tricks and shaky alliances made in hopes of walking away with the grand prize — a spot on the U.S. team at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Bryan Fletcher, who leads the U.S. in World Cup competitions and is also an avid cyclist, said the initial ski jump sets up the field and in a way establishes a leader and a chase group, just like in a bike race.
"The chase group is going to have to work together to catch that front group," he said. "The difference being it's a little more cutthroat."
Unlike some bicycle races, this Saturday's Nordic combined event will be every man for himself (there is no women's Nordic combined World Cup circuit, and therefore no U.S. team), meaning any partnerships made to try and catch the leader are between rivals.
"In Nordic combined, sometimes the best way for individual success is to team up with an athlete from another country (or in this case, your own) and take turns sharing the lead," Fletcher said. "It's kind of a tough thing because, in the end, you know one of them is going to get their back stabbed."
The co-conspirators, as it were, trade off pushing through wind and setting the pace, but it's a tenuous partnership.
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"You're working together, but at the same time, when you're coming into the last lap it's every man for himself," Fletcher said. "It's an individual sport and you're going to have to find out how to outsmart that guy – whether that means sitting behind when it's your turn to pull through and leaving him out there to dry, or putting in a big attack on the fourth hill (of the four-lap race), somehow you're going to have to beat that guy."
In the end, someone always gets burned, Fletcher said, and he's been on that side of the deal his fair share of times.
"There's always someone that's playing the field – playing that they are more tired and that they can't pull through or whatever," he said.
During last year's World Cup season, he said the Germans were a prime example.
"They played everybody," he said. "They sat in the back – they never led – then fourth lap around and they dropped everybody to win. It burned a lot of people, and a lot of athletes trained really hard this summer to reach their level, and this year… it's a lot more mixed throughout the field. It only takes a few times of getting burned like that before you start going, 'OK, what am I missing, how am I going to outsmart this other guy?'"
That doesn't mean the athletes will all be vying for the back of the pack come Saturday and waiting for a chance to sprint. Fletcher said each athlete's strengths will still determine their own strategy, and there isn't a single strategy that will work for every racer.
"If you have an athlete like Taylor (Fletcher, Bryan's brother), who can go hard from the very beginning and push the pace from a long way out of the finish, he's going to go a lot earlier than a younger skier who doesn't have that strength," Bryan said. "(That skier) is going to wait until the end and then try and put in a high-powered neuromuscular sprint to the finish."
Saturday, all the tricks will come out and the winner will walk away with a ticket to the Winter Games, while the others may be left wondering just how they got burned.