Belmondo wins 15-K race, takes undisputed overall lead
BRUSSON, Italy (AP) _ Stefania Belmondo of Italy took an undisputed lead in the women’s World Cup overall standings by scoring her second consecutive season victory in Saturday’s 15-kilometer freestyle cross country ski race.
Belmondo, supported by a partisan crowd in this Italian Alpine resort, edged Russian rival Elena Vaelbe by 1.7 seconds for her 12th career victory in the yearly competition.
Nina Gavriljuk, another skier from the powerful Russian team, took third place, 42.3 seconds behind the winner.
Gavriljuk captured her third consecutive third place in as many races edging by one tenth Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic.
Italy’s Sabina Valbusa skied her best ever World Cup race, taking sixth place, 1:04 minutes behind the teammate.
Russia placed six women among the top nine skiers while the first Scandinavian finisher, Norway’s Marit Mikkelsplass, was a distant 15th, with a gap of more than two minutes from Belmondo.
Belmondo, who fell after one kilometer and lost time, trailed Vaelbe in the first quarter of the race but definitely took the lead and victory with a strong comeback in the last 7 kilometers.
``I am overjoyed with this victory, in front of my fans,″ Belmondo said. ``I’ll enjoy a happy Christmas this year. I’m looking forward to the next Cup races and to the world championships. But I dare saying that today’s victory was more important than a world title.″
Belmondo, who had won the previous World Cup race _ a 10-K classical _ at Davos last Saturday, vaulted atop the standings with 280 points after three events or two wins and a second place.
Vaelbe, the Cup co-leader prior to Saturday’s race in Brusson, slipped to second with 260 points.
Vaelbe, who won the opening season race at Kiruna in Sweden, finished second twice to Belmondo in the last two events.
Defending World Cup champion Manuela Di Centa placed tenth on her first race this season, 1:26 minutes behind.
The Italian skier, who competed with a bandaged hand, returned to action after recovering from a broken thumb.
``I’m still short of preparation. I did not stop along the course only because I was competing in front of Italian fans,″ Di Centa said.
Canada’s Beckie Scott pocketed two World Cup points placing 29th, ahead of Japan’s Fumiko Aoki.
The Canadian skier trailed the winner by 2:51 minutes.
Nina Kemppel of Anchorage, AK., finished one place off World Cup points _ 31st, in 43:20.1 minutes.