KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (USA TODAY) - Expectations for USA-1 bobsled pilot Steve Holcomb were high in the two-man event.
He captured the World Cup points title, winning five of eight races in the fast, new BMW sled, and gold seemed realistic. It would've ended a 78-year gold-medal drought in two-man for the U.S.
But after watching Russia pilot Alexander Zubkov nail the intricacies of the 17-curve, 4,921-feet track — with uphill sections — at the Sanki Sliding Center on Monday, Holcomb will take his bronze and be happy with it.
After all, that medal is the first in two-man for the U.S. since the 1952 Oslo Olympics.
No one was catching Zubkov on this track — possibly foreshadowing the four-man event this weekend — and he won the first two-man gold for Russia since the Soviet Union dissolved.
Zubkov had a four-run time of 3:45.39, 0.66 seconds ahead of silver-medalist Beat Hefti of Switzerland. He set a track record in the third heat in 56.08 seconds, breaking the mark he set one day earlier.
Holcomb and brakeman Steve Langton finished .03 ahead of Russia 2 to hang onto the bronze medal.
Holcomb admitted after the final heats that he had strained his calf on the second step of the second push in Sunday's heats. He went for treatment after competition ended and decided to continue.
Home much did the home-track advantage help? Zubkov didn't win a World Cup race this season and was on the podium three times in seven races. As a pilot, he hasn't won a World Cup race since late in the 2010-11 season. In fact, Zubkov finished fourth on this track in two-man a year ago.
But between then and Monday, Zubkov took as many runs as possible here. He even skipped the final World Cup race this season to go home and get more practice on this track. Holcomb said he had about 40-some runs on the track here, and it's possible Zubkov had five times as many.
Still, Holcomb's medal is an achievement for the U.S. which rolled a new fleet of BMW-designed two-man sleds for the 2013-14 season.
In the first two heats on Sunday, Holcomb had some trouble with bottom of the track and entered Monday's final two heats in third place. He maintained his position with strong runs and did a better job finding speed on the bottom portion of the track.
Americans Nick Cunningham and Cory Butner were 12th and 13th.