- Associated Press - Friday, February 21, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - At Vancouver in 2010, the four-man Olympic bobsled race served as a breakthrough for Steven Holcomb and the United States.

In the sled they dubbed the “Night Train,” Holcomb won gold, the first for the U.S. in bobsled’s signature race since 1948.

And now it’s Russia’s Alexander Zubkov - almost certainly in his final Olympics as a pilot - looking for a breakthrough of his own. The two-man gold medalist at the Sochi Games will look to cap his Olympics in style with a four-man gold, and he’ll likely be the favorite to do just that when racing starts with two-runs on Saturday night.

The final two runs are Sunday, scheduled to end just hours before the start of the closing ceremony at the Sochi Games.

Russia - or the Soviet Union, for that matter - has never won Olympic gold in four-man. Zubkov came close at the Turin Games in 2006, winning silver, but the big prize has always remained outside the reach of Russia’s biggest sled.

Holcomb figures to be a challenger as well at the controls of USA-1. He’s got a new sled now, the “Night Train 2,” and the one he used to win four years ago is in the hands of USA-2 pilot Nick Cunningham.

Based on training times, all three German sleds also look to have a medal shot. But all eyes, and all the pressure, will be on Zubkov.

Here’s five things to watch when the competition starts with the first two runs Saturday night:

EARLY PRESSURE: In 11 of the last 13 Olympic four-man competitions, the sled that has held the first-run lead has ultimately gone on to win the gold medal. On the other two occasions, the early leader settled for silver. The lesson? Big comebacks are rare in sliding, so avoiding early mistakes appears to be critical on Saturday night.

CONDITION CHECK: Friday’s final session of training took place in damp, raw afternoon conditions and probably with slightly warmer ice than the sleds will find on Saturday night. Of course, most of the drivers and teams are familiar with different race-night conditions at the Sanki Sliding Center now because of the wildly varying conditions going into the two-man event, but it still will put some guesswork into the equation of how to best set up the sled.

GERMAN RALLY: A German sled has medaled in four-man bobsledding at every Olympics since 1968, with seven golds, four silvers and four bronzes during that span. Germans dominated the luge competition in Sochi, but weren’t fast in skeleton, women’s bobsled or two-man. A medal show here in four-man would salvage something. Otherwise, big changes might be coming to the perennial sliding power.

SPOTLIGHT TIME: If all things go according to schedule, the second run of bobsled on Saturday night would be the only event happening at that time at the Sochi Olympics. Crowds should be sizable, and so should viewership, so it would seem to be a chance for those who fare well to get perhaps even more notice than they usually would even at an Olympics.

FAREWELL RACES: It’s the last sliding race of the season, so many of the 120 racers in the field will be competing not just at an Olympics for the final time, but internationally for the last time. It’s been estimated that up to 25 percent of sliders who race in an Olympics don’t come back the next season, for an array of reasons, and it’s expected that the U.S. and other powerhouse nations will see plenty of athletes retire before sliding resumes next fall.

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