The U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) decided to try something new this year: instead of sending all of its best athletes to the World Cup, they would send a smaller group of developing athletes to the IBU Cup – biathlon’s equivalent of the Continental Cup, but more competitive – as well.
“It’s better for athlete development to go to the IBU Cup and have success, than it is to go straight to the World Cup,” USBA President and CEO Max Cobb told FasterSkier in an interview.
Well: mission accomplished.
In the second weekend of IBU Cup racing, and the first with an American contingent present, Annelies Cook and Tracy Barnes each collected a top-20 and a top-15 result in Martell, Italy. Which is funny, because USBA wrote some guidelines for this very situation. In their athlete selection criteria, they said,
“Athletes achieving a top 15 and a top 20 at IBU Cup will be moved up to the World Cup provided there are open start positions.”
They couldn’t have guessed that not one but two women would meet the criteria. This year, the U.S. was allowed three World Cup starts for its women, and Sara Studebaker and Laura Spector have filled two of them so far – with great success, as each has a top-30 result to their name so far this season. USBA declined to fill the third spot because it felt that it would be better for the women’s team, which is viewed as weaker than the men’s team, to start at a lower level of competition.
Now, they have more fast women than spots on the World Cup, and with a second round of trials coming up to select more athletes for the next period of IBU Cups, things are only going to get more competitive.
To solve their current dilemma, USBA is bumping both Cook and Barnes up to the World Cup, Cook told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
“We actually just found out that we are being invited to race in the Pokljuka [Slovenia] World Cup this weekend,” she said. “Tracy will race the individual and myself the sprint. We are both really excited for this opportunity!”
As for the races that already happened: they were plenty exciting. In the first day’s 15 k individual competition, Cook finished 18th and Barnes 19th. Conditions were windy, just like in Austria for the World Cup.
“I have never experienced such wild and changeable wind conditions,” Cook told FasterSkier. “One second, it would be howling in one direction and then two shots later it was going in the opposite direction.”
Barnes, a World Cup and Olympic veteran, had possibly the most exciting race of anyone in the field.
“The first race, the individual, was for me a ‘glad to have that one over with’ kind of race,” she said in an interview. “Even though I’m the old fart on the team I still managed to miss my start because I grabbed one training ski and one race ski. Man, did I feel like a greenhorn!”
But Barnes’ troubles didn’t end there. She struggled in both the skiing and shooting portions of the race.
“The conditions on the range were incredibly difficult, and I felt that it was a great opportunity for me with the shooting,” she said. “But with a few too many mistakes, I missed that opportunity.
“Then, on the last loop of the race I went down on one of the downhill corners and ended up on my back under a fence with my skis facing uphill. I tried to get up but my rifle was stuck. I was sitting there flopping like a fish for I don’t know how long, and then all of a sudden I feel someone’s hands under my arms and I’m lifted off the ground and turned around so that my skis were facing downhill. I thanked the very nice, and very strong, volunteer for getting me out of the mess and was off down the trail. What a funny race.”
For Cook, a big part of her strategy was skiing safely but aggressively, which she managed to do.
“It was an exciting race series because they are now limiting spots on the World Cup, so there are more racers from the World Cup on the IBU Cups,” she said. “There was some serious carnage because of some twisty, turny, icy corners after the uphills… It was definitely part of my strategy to not crash on the downhills, and to pass girls in snowplows!”
The next day, both Cook and Barnes improved on their finishes in the 7.5 k sprint, with Barnes moving up to seventh place in the standings, missing only a single shot.
“The second race was fun, because I had the opportunity to rumble with Ekaterina Iourieva of Russia,” she said. “We both came into the range at the same time and she skied up to a shooting point and I skied up to the point in front of her and decided I’d try to mess with her a little. We were shooting shot for shot and I sped up my last one to get it off before her and hopefully mess her up, but no go, she cleaned as well and we went out on the last loop together. She put a little time on me on one of the uphills, but then by the last uphill before the finish I was able to catch her and pass her. It was just fun and exciting to be able to race with a Russian who has been a solid force in biathlon in the past.”
And indeed she has: Iourieva is a former World Champion just returning from a two-year doping ban. She finished sixth in the individual race and fifth in the sprint, making a argument for her return to the World Cup circuit.
Cook finished twelfth, and gained further confidence in her skiing.
“I was very happy to be skiing well compared to the field,” she said. “I was actually quite nervous because I have been feeling so much better skiing this year than previously, but you never really know until you start to race in Europe how you actually stack up. There’s a lot more racing to come, but it is good to start gaining a little confidence now!
“As far as shooting went…. Ouch! The shooting was not super stellar for me at all this weekend.”
Claude Godbout of Canada had a top finish of 26th in the sprint race.
On the men’s side, the Canadians had a few top finishes of their own. In Saturday’s 20 k individual, Scott Gow placed 15th – and it was the 20-year-old’s first race in Europe as a senior.
“My race this past Saturday was excellent, and I was ecstatic with my 15th placing,” he told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
“Going into the race my goal was to ski controlled, be relaxed in the shooting range, and with good shooting make it into the top 30. For the first couple laps, I was skiing controlled but not shooting very relaxed, and I think that caused my one prone miss, but after my first standing I got more into my normal shooting rhythm, which allowed me to hit the rest of my targets. Looking at results, there were a lot of people who struggled with shooting, and that is partially due to the fact that it was pretty gusty and unpredictable wind conditions on the shooting range. I’d like to think that being able to stay focused, relaxed, and not rushing my shooting also helped me knock down targets.”
And in Sunday’s 10 k sprint, Marc-Andre Bedard finished 11th, just under 40 seconds behind the winner, Andrei Makoveev of Russia. Bedard was in sixth place after the first shooting stage, but missed one shot in standing.
“I had a good one and felt like I was going for the podium,” he said in an e-mail. “But my miss standing just got me off of the top spots. Still, these are the biggest (in numbers) international races of the year, which are represented by over 40 nations and 170 men! Most of us are pushing for a spot on the World Cup and the top countries bring full teams of 7 men, so this is a great feeling to be on top there.”
Despite his excellent sprint result, Bedard won’t be getting the call to move up to the World Cup like Cook and Barnes did. But he has a few more chances.
“Unfortunately I need to keep on going fast if I want a chance to get on the World Cup after Christmas,” he said. “I was hoping to get to Slovenia right away, but I’ll keep racing on the IBU in Obertilliach Friday and Saturday hoping that I get some more top results top convince the coaches!”
The American men struggled, with Zach Hall finishing 79th in the individual and 96th in the sprint, and Bill Bowler finishing 92nd and 76th.
“Zach Hall caught a tough break on his last shooting stage in the individual race, entering the range at the same time as the strongest wind of the day,” U.S. coach Patrick Coffey told FasterSkier. “Despite some tough shooting, the men put in strong performances. Bill Bowler had an impressive sprint race, shooting 2, 1 on another windy day. On his first trip to Europe he has looked right at home on the international stage.”
While the men, and Godbout, will be heading to Obertilliach, Austria, for the third weekend of IBU Cup racing, Cook and Barnes couldn’t be happier to have the chance to race in Slovenia this weekend.