For the second time in two months, several top U.S. biathletes are headed to Jericho, Vt., for back-to-back rollerski races this weekend — except instead of August weather, they could see frost, and instead of a mass start and a sprint, they’ll compete in sprints both Saturday and Sunday.
The races mark the second set of trials for US Biathlon, which holds them annually in August and October to determine the final spots for its early season World Cup team.
“We have 4 start spots for women and 4 for men the entire season,” Bernd Eisenbichler, US Biathlon Association (USBA) chief of sport, wrote in an email. “And we [are] always looking to keep one spot open before the season, so that is an open chance for anyone to qualify through trials.”
This year, they have one opening on the men’s side and two for the women. USBA A-team men Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey and Leif Nordgren prequalified for the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cups 1, 2 and 3 with top-20 results on the circuit last season, as did A-team women Susan Dunklee and Hannah Dreissigacker.
Annelies Cook, Clare Egan and Sean Doherty made the USBA’s A-team standard this year, but without a World Cup top 20 last season, they have to prove themselves at trials and in training camps.
“The naming to the A Team gives you the right to train in [Lake Placid] and be part of the camps,” Eisenbichler explained. It doesn’t automatically qualify an athlete for World Cups.
After this weekend’s races, the USBA staff will decide whom to invite to its Utah training camp, in addition to its five prequalified World Cup skiers, Oct. 18 through Nov. 1. After that camp, they will name the final spots for World Cups 1-3.
Heading into the weekend, Cook, Egan and Maddie Phaneuf had the best chances for the two women’s positions based on their results at the August trials, according to Eisenbichler. Doherty, Jakob Ellingson, Russell Currier, and Casey Smith are all vying for the lone men’s spot.
As for what the national-team coaches are looking for, Eisenbichler stressed progression over a long period of time rather than “peaking” for a single race. This extended trial format gives a sense of progression over a longer block of time, and can be a good indicator of what to expect for the winter, he added.
Rollerski competitions make for “fair and consistent conditions,” he wrote, and eliminate the angst of searching for snow just before the start of the season.
The format also allows for more time for coaching input “to guide the athletes on the right track,” Eisenbichler explained, and another month of preseason training after trials.
In August, more than 80 biathletes from North America and Sweden participated in the first set of races, the North American Rollerski Cup and US Biathlon National Rollerski Championships. Burke won the men’s sprint, Canadian Nathan Smith topped the men’s mass start, and Dunklee won both women’s races.
This weekend’s races at the Ethan Allen Firing Range are open to participants outside of the USBA as well, and results will be posted at http://www.eabiathlon.org/results.html. Racers will likely compete in temperatures ranging from the low 40s to 50-degrees Fahrenheit.