Sometimes, pretty good is good enough, and in Saturday’s races at the North American Biathlon Championships, that was the case.
Despite a smattering of misses by each of them, Tracy Barnes-Colliander and Wynn Roberts skied to convincing wins in the 12.5/10 k pursuit. Walt Shepard and Marc-Andre Bedard took second and third in the men’s race, while Claude Godbout and Annelies Cook rounded out the women’s podium.
“I was a little disappointed with my shooting today,” Barnes-Colliander said. “I lucked out.”
Coming into the last of four stages on the range, Barnes-Colliander had a big lead over the rest of the women’s field. All she had to do was knock down five standing targets, and she’d be assured of her second victory here in as many races.
One of the most accurate biathletes in the world, Barnes-Colliander shouldn’t have had any trouble. But she jerked her first two shots, and had to stop, reset, and take a deep breath before hitting her last three in a row.
“I was really disappointed with those two,” she said. “I could hear them coming in behind me. I figured I had to shoot better than the two to do it.”
But even though Barnes-Colliander left an Aroostook County-sized opening for her competition, no one could capitalize. Cook was next into the range, and within striking distance, but she missed three, and Godbout had already taken herself out of the race with a number of early penalties.
Cook actually had led early after cleaning her first shooting stage. She was helped by a decision by the race organizers—in an effort to make the race more competitive—to start the athletes at five-second intervals, as opposed to using the time gaps from the sprint as handicaps.
That meant that Cook was starting just 15 seconds behind Barnes-Colliander, rather than two minutes. But alone at the front partway through, the pressure got to her on the range.
“I think I was just a little too hot, and I wanted it a little too bad, so I kind of jumped all over the place [in the shooting],” Cook said. ““It really kind of went downhill from there.”
Cook and Godbout were battling for second place on their last loop, but then Cook took a spill on a downhill, letting Godbout get away.
While Barnes-Colliander’s performance was good enough for the win today, she said that her four penalties wouldn’t have held up on the World Cup.
“I need to shoot quite a bit better than that,” she said. “For me, 18, 19 [hits] is good. 16—I’m not happy with that.”
Like Cook, Roberts was helped the officials’ decision to reduce the time gaps between starters. That shrunk his gap to Casey Simons—the first starter—from a minute and a half to a mere twenty seconds.
In Thursday’s sprint, Roberts hadn’t been feeling good on his skis. But Saturday, he was back at full speed, and he made up the time to Simons and the two others in front of him on his first 2.5 k lap. All four men came into the range for the first shooting stage in a big pack.
Shepard was actually the first to leave after hitting five quick shots—he was the only one in the group without a miss.
Jazzed up after shooting so well, Shepard went full gas out of the stadium, trying to build a lead over the chasers.
But by the time he came back to shoot a second time, he was so far ahead that he let himself relax a little too much, missing two targets and loosening his grip on the race.
“I wanted to take it easy [coming into the range],” Shepard said. “I think I might have slowed down a little too much, just to try and make sure I hit targets.”
Meanwhile, Bedard had worked his way back into the race after starting 1:10 down. The U.S. Border Patrol did everything it could to keep him from competing—Bedard missed Thursday’s sprint when he was barred from entering the U.S. with his rifle—but on Saturday, Maine Winter Sports Center arranged for the Canadian to use one of their spare guns.
Over the first two shooting bouts, Bedard hit all but one target, and he took the lead over Shepard and Roberts on the third loop. But two penalties on the next stage took him out of contention, setting the stage for a duel between the other two.
Roberts has more speed than Shepard, and like Barnes-Colliander, he came into the range all alone, with five targets standing between him and victory. But he missed one, and Shepard cleaned, leaving the stadium with a ten-second cushion.
Shepard, though, had expended too many matches early in the race when he was leading, and on the last loop, the effort caught up with him.
“That first prone…I was so psyched to clean fast like that—it was just what I wanted to do,” he said. “I came charging out of there. I wanted to try to get a good lead, and I think I just went a little too hard on that second loop. I really paid for it the rest of the way.”
In the penalty loop, Roberts said that he had heard the announcer yelling that Shepard had cleaned, and he knew that his work was cut out for him.
“I knew that I had to get on him—otherwise, if he kept the gap, then I wouldn’t be able to catch him,” Roberts said. “I’m skiing not much, just a little bit faster than him.”
But he caught Shepard quickly—just halfway up the course’s first big climb, and Shepard didn’t have the gas in the tank to keep up.
Roberts acknowledged that he got some help from the race organizers today, since their decision to reduce the start intervals meant that he had a shot at the win today.
“It’s hard for someone like Walt or Casey who had a first place [Thursday]. Casey was 1:25 up on me,” he said. “He kind of got hosed a little bit…only having a 20 second gap on me starting today.”
Simons shot so poorly today, with twelve penalties, that even if he’d kept his full lead from the sprint, he would have needed his competitors to stop for a snack for him to win.
But Shepard, who likely would have won the race if it had been run as a normal pursuit, had no complaints.
“It would have been nice to have that time on everybody today,” he said. “But this is a way to make it a really exciting race, and I have no regrets about that.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.