This year, the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) had a radical shift in its athlete development strategy: instead of sending a full squad to the World Cup and leaving the rest of the American biathlon field at home, they would minimize their World Cup presence to only those athletes who were succeeding, and field a much larger team at the IBU (International Biathlon Union) Cup races.
While the U.S. biathletes that FasterSkier talked to, on and off the record, were unanimously positive about the change, it’s going to take time to assess whether the new strategy is the best one for biathlon’s long-term growth in North America.
What is the IBU Cup?
The IBU Cup is the level of racing below the World Cup, and unlike in skiing, it’s a well-defined series of races contested by athletes from every IBU member country. Modeled after the World Cup itself, there are only eight weekends of racing, plus the Open European Championships and World Military Championships.
The IBU Cup is always incredibly competitive. But in April, the IBU Executive Board voted to reduce the field size at World Cup events, meaning that this year the IBU Cup is even tougher than usual.
In addition to diminishing each country’s athlete quota and capping the field at 108 starters, the IBU ruled that in order to compete in World Cup competitions, athletes must have finished within 15% back from the winner at an IBU Cup race. To continue racing on the World Cup in each new trimester of competition, athletes must now finish within 15% back in one World Cup race.
As a result, this year’s IBU Cup races have been especially competitive. So far, former World Champions and racers with top-10 World Cup finishes have skied and shot their way to top results in bids to regain World Cup start rights.
And racing right along with them were ten North Americans. Canada has traditionally sent a large group of athletes to the IBU Cup races, and in 2009 had six men competing there mid-season. The U.S., on the other hand, only funded two weeks of IBU Cup racing last year.
While a number of athletes moved between the IBU Cup and World Cup circuits, this year there were four American and six Canadian regulars at the second and third race weekends. In Martell, Italy and Obertilliach, Austria, they racked up seven top-20 results, including American Tracy Barnes’ seventh-place finish in the 7.5 k sprint in Martell.
With four more Americans headed to Europe next week, it’s important to assess exactly how the IBU Cup trips are benefitting North American athletes.
Pros: Confidence and Experience
The group of North Americans contesting the first round of IBU Cup races had widely varying levels of experience. On one hand, there was Scott Gow, a twenty-year-old Canadian who had competed in four World Junior Championships, but no senior events in Europe. On the other, there was 28-year-old Barnes, a 2006 Olympian and several-year World Cup veteran. FasterSkier caught up with both athletes, as well as American Bill Bowler and Canadian Melanie Schulz.
All the athletes said they had benefitted from the trip, but in different ways.
For Barnes, who did not get to compete on the World Cup last year and was not re-named to the national team this year, the IBU Cup is a place where she can get her groove back. After finishing 19th and 7th in Martell, she got called up to the World Cup, where she finished 64th in the 15 k individual race in Pokljuka, Slovenia. It wasn’t her best performance, and she later returned to Obertilliach to race.
“I feel more comfortable and more confident right now on the IBU Cup,” Barnes said in an e-mail. “When I get to the World Cup my confidence in my skiing falters, and I’ve lost the race before it even starts. But on the IBU Cup I find that I’m more aggressive and I attack on the skis and stay with people and try and pass them.
“The staff on the IBU cup has been so incredibly supportive and has helped me to really get to a place where I need to be competitively.”
While Schulz doesn’t have Barnes’ years of international experience in her back pocket, she is now in her second year of IBU Cup racing, and is beginning to see a payoff.
“I had my best results this last weekend in Obertilliach,” she told FasterSkier. At those races, Schulz finished 35th in the sprint and 30th in the pursuit.
But as she pointed out, racing internationally is a lot different than racing NorAms, which have tiny fields, sometimes comprising just ten senior women. NorAms don’t prepare athletes for the confusion of starting a 60-woman pursuit, as Schulz discovered in Obertilliach.
“I messed up in the pursuit race,” she said. “There are new IBU rules this year. Athletes are responsible for starting themselves, and the start is videotaped and reviewed to make sure everyone started on time. Starting up to 3 seconds early results in a 30 second time penalty, and starting more than 3 seconds early results in disqualification.
“Somehow with all the anticipation and excitement in the start gates, I ended up starting 0.2 seconds early. I didn’t realize this until the end of the race when I was bumped from 23rd place to 30th place due to the penalty.”
Her teammate Gow, despite top-10 World Juniors finishes and a relay medal to his name, learned a lot on the IBU Cup, too.
“This year was my first time on the IBU Cup and the level of competition was much higher than anything I was used to,” he said in an e-mail. “I felt that in order to compete on this circuit, it was really important that I race my best every day and make sure that everything I do in my prep work is perfect.
“I loved the atmosphere, too. Just being at that higher level is exciting and makes me want to train harder to be better. The experience I’ve gained from the IBU Cup is going to be great going into Junior Worlds this season, and for racing and motivating my training for next season.”
Bowler, who was racing overseas for the first time, said that besides providing general motivation, the experience helped him set specific goals.
“Now that I’ve experienced a high level of international racing, I can see exactly what I need to work on,” he told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Biathlon is really interesting in that you can break down an entire race and see places where you can gain valuable pieces of time. Some of these elements for me include shooting speed and the speed of my approach and exit to the range. I’d like to chop another 5-10 seconds off my shooting speed per stage.”
So for all four athletes, racing on the IBU Cup circuit has been an important step in their continual quest for improvement.
Cons: Is It Best for the Sport?
But regardless of each athlete’s personal experience, questions still remain about whether sending large groups of athletes to Europe is what’s best for North American biathlon.
Bowler, for one, thinks that the U.S. should send more athletes to the IBU Cup.
“I think it’s great that USBA is able to support more IBU Cup racing this year,” he said. “If you look at the top guys in the sport, it has taken them many years of international competition to reach the level they’re at. Being able to go over there and gain experience is the first step towards getting to that point. It’s always a matter of funding, but giving more athletes an opportunity to race in Europe is the best catalyst for international improvement as a nation.”
But Gow had a different theory, even though he clearly benefitted from his IBU Cup experience.
“I don’t think we need more North Americans in Europe,” he said. “But we do need to emulate the same level of competition in our NorAm races. Obviously we can’t have the same field size, but we can create the same atmosphere and pressures that would exist on the IBU Cup. That would be the biggest way to get that same kind of experience without having to go to Europe.”
He has a point: with more and more of the top North American biathletes heading to Europe, there isn’t much competition left for everyone else. While everyone who goes to Europe clearly benefits, those left at home are starved for competition.
When racing resumes in January, there will be fifteen Americans racing on the World Cup and IBU Cup circuits, including every member of the U.S. men’s national team. That leaves approximately six senior women left to contest NorAms, and even fewer men. In USBA’s second round of trials, only three senior men bothered to show up, and one of them, Wynn Roberts, is now heading to Europe.
The situation illustrates how difficult it can be to build up a sport faced with such low participation. Providing the best athletes with opportunities could in some ways slow biathlon’s growth at the grassroots level. It’s hard to take NorAm racing seriously with such small fields, and even harder for athletes to improve when those are the only available race opportunities.
There’s a middle ground available: after the fifth weekend of IBU Cup racing in Altenberg, Germany in mid-January, part of the American team will probably be sent home. While a few athletes will stay in Europe for the Under-26 Open European Championships, the U.S. is not planning to field a team for sixth and seventh IBU Cup weekends in Slovakia and Bulgaria.
It’s encouraging that USBA is trying out a new strategy, and shows that they are dedicated to discovering the best solution to a complex problem. In the meantime, the best Americans and Canadians will continue to excel on the IBU Cup, and gain valuable experience on their path to the World Cup.