The cold weather is the most talked-about feature of this weekend’s World Cup biathlon races in Kontiolahti, Finland, but the U.S. team is lobbying hard for that to change. After putting two racers in the top six in Saturday’s men’s sprint – they were the only team to do so – the storyline might become the red-hot Americans, not the frozen thermometers.
“Today was obviously a great day for the team,” World Cup veteran Tim Burke told FasterSkier.
“You’ll have to check the record books, but I believe this has got to be the best day in U.S. biathlon history,” agreed teammate Lowell Bailey.
That’s continuing a recent trend: in Friday’s mixed relay, the team raced to sixth place, the top finish ever for the U.S. in the event. Most top athletes from other countries sat the relay out, afraid of the damage the cold air would do to their lungs.
Americans Burke and Jay Hakkinen, however, took one for the team, so to speak, and put on bibs for the relay. Although Burke said he felt “sluggish” in his warmup on Saturday, he didn’t think that the relay had a big effect on his sprint performance. He and Hakkinen finished 13th and 16th, making them two of the top men who had competed in the relay and placing them ahead of many who had sat the event out.
Their performances were nothing, however, compared to Bailey and Russell Currier, who hadn’t been feeling 100 % going into the relay and had instead stayed inside. Those two led the way for the U.S., placing fifth and sixth mere seconds off the podium.
“We had great skis and the conditions were cold but fair,” said Bailey, alluding to several events earlier this season during which conditions changed partway through a race. “I was able to ski a consistent race.”
Bailey was in second place after cleaning the initial shooting stage. He missed one shot in standing, but so did race winner Martin Fourcade; the error only knocked him down to fifth.
Based on splits, Bailey was 15.5 seconds out of the lead when he left on his final 3.3 kilometer loop. He couldn’t close the gap, skiing the distance in the 13th-fastest time of the day. But that split had come off of Benjamin Weger of Switzerland, who also tired at the finish and ended up losing his lead to Fourcade.
The top three finishers – Fourcade, Timofey Lapshin of Russia, and Weger – were all within 1.6 seconds of each other, and Bailey was not far behind. His effort placed him 9.8 seconds behind Fourcade, eight from the podium and three behind fourth-place Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway.
“I was pretty happy with my last lap,” Bailey said. “[It] would be nice to have found ten seconds out there somewhere, but so it goes.”
Given that he’d been slightly sick earlier in the week, the American was particularly pleased to be able to clock in a fast ski time.
“I came down with a minor head cold when I arrived in Finland, so I have been laying low most of the week,” he said. “But thankfully, it seems like it wasn’t too much of a factor today.”
Currier took a different path towards the top, using clean shooting to climb from 19th after the first stage to seventh after the second and, ultimately, sixth at the finish. The race was almost an exact duplicate of an earlier effort in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, where the Maine Winter Sports Center athlete hit all his targets to place sixth, 23 seconds behind Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway and 14 behind Fourcade, who had placed third.
In Kontiolahti, Currier didn’t know much about how his race was going while he was out on course, so he just put his head down and skied.
“I didn’t have much info or attention on the last loop,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I only had about three splits from Jonne [Kahkonen, the U.S. women’s coach]. I had heard a top eight when I left the range and a top five before the finish and that was about it. I knew I was having a good day, but not much more than that.”
Currier was racing against the clock, and also against a suspected bout of food poisoning from the day before, which had foiled his plans to start in the relay.
“I felt a lot better this morning,” Currier said of his stomach bug. “I still wasn’t 100 %, but close enough and made the call to go for it.”
Unlike his three older teammates, Currier did not race the last weekend of World Cups in Oslo, Norway. Instead, he competed at the Under-26 Open European Championships the week before, and then stayed in southern Europe to train. That meant that he missed the excitement generated by his teammates in Oslo, where Burke and Bailey had each finished in the top ten.
Currier said that the separation didn’t bother him though, and he had no trouble catching a ride on the team’s momentum once he joined them in Finland.
“Teammates are always going in different directions so we’re used to playing catch up every time we’re in the same place at the same time,” he explained.
Burke likely would have joined his teammates in the top ten, were it not for a rifle malfunction during his standing stage.
“My empty shell from prone simply would not eject before standing,” the frustrated American told FasterSkier. “After trying over and over again to get it out, I had to call for help and pry it out with a screw driver before I could start shooting.”
He estimated that the error had cost him 20 seconds.
“At least the times stayed very close so I will not be starting too far behind tomorrow,” he said.
While the Americans all agreed that today’s race was one of their best ever, they reacted in different ways. Bailey seemed the most giddy, even four hours after the race.
“It was a great day for Team USA!” he wrote in an e-mail. “Tomorrow should be a blast considering our whole team is starting up towards the front of the field!”
Burke, who has spent a similar tenure on the national team, was just as enthusiastic but a bit more circumspect.
“I think this really shows the quality of our national team program when we have the entire team under the top 16,” he told FasterSkier.
Of all the men on the team, Burke is the only one who has experienced season-long success before this season. During the 2009-2010 campaign, Burke even wore the yellow bib of the overall World Cup leader for a period of time.
Back then, however, he was much more alone at the top of the standings; the team could never put together a race where the whole group excelled. This season, things have changed, and Burke is no longer always the top dog. He said that the newfound depth helped everyone as well as making his own job easier.
“It has been great this year to have the entire team doing so well,” he said. “It definitely takes some pressure off of me when all of our guys are capable of a top result.”
Currier hasn’t spent as much time on the World Cup, but he still understood the implications of today’s race.
“If what I’m hearing is correct today is in fact the best day the US men have ever had!” he said.
“I don’t think the athletes will be doing as much celebrating as the coaches and wax techs tonight, but I think Lowell and I might have to go to the awards ceremony at some point.”