Defending gold medalist struggles early in snowboard cross

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By Deborah Charles

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Defending gold medalist Seth Wescott of the United States, a top medal pick for the hot-dog sport of snowboard cross, qualified for the next round on Monday despite struggling on the icy course in the preliminary round.

Wescott was about three seconds faster in his second run at the Vancouver Olympics, good enough for 17th place.

The long, bumpy course, which favors technical riders, caught many off guard as they careened around turns and flew over the jumps on their way down the Cypress Mountain run.

Poor weather and lack of snow limited practice time on the course leading up to the competition.

Alex Pullin of Australia, the first rider to go down the course, finished first in both runs and enters the heats as the top seed.

Wescott and Pullin will face off in the first heat, along with Switzerland's Fabio Caduff and Czech rider David Bakes.

American Graham Watanabe, another favorite, qualified second while Canadian Mike Robertson thrilled the cheering crowd with a third place finish.

France's Pierre Vaultier, considered one of the men to beat in the race, finished the qualifying round in sixth place.

The riders will now face off four at a time in heats, with the final run due around 3 p.m. (2300 GMT).

(Additional reporting by Nicole Mordant)

(Editing by Frank Pingue)