It’s not as if the U.S. men’s biathlon team hasn’t shown its potential this year: Lowell Bailey led the beginning of the last relay before missing too many shots to maintain his position, and Bailey has had a number of top-20 finishes in individual races, while Tim Burke has two top-20’s and Leif Nordgren shot clean to finish 35th in the very first World Cup race of the season.
But still, the biathlon world was pretty surprised with the performances the Americans were able to turn in at the beginning of Sunday’s 4 x 7.5 k relay in Antholz, Italy.
Bailey kicked things off for the U.S., skiing with the lead pack through two loops. He cleaned in prone and then used one spare round in standing. Bailey left the range in fifth place, ten seconds behind Anton Shipulin of Russia.
But with 2.5 k left to ski, he wasn’t finished yet. While unable to make up any time on Shipulin, Bailey rampaged through the rest of the field, passing the likes of Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, currently ranked second in the overall World Cup standings, and tagged off to Leif Nordgren in second place.
“Lowell’s first leg was excellent: good skiing and good shooting,” U.S. Head Coach Per Nilsson told FasterSkier. “This week is the strongest Lowell has been in many years.”
It’s not unusual for an underdog team to have a strong leadoff leg in a relay, only to falter as the race goes on. Would the U.S. be able to maintain their position at the top of the field? All eyes turned to 21-year-old Leif Nordgren, who was starting the fifth World Cup relay of his young career. Nordgren showed his capabilities in that first race in Oestersund, Sweden, this year, but since then had been unimpressive.
But Nordgren didn’t disappoint. In the first loop, he skied with a pack of skiers from countries known as biathlon powerhouses. He used two spare rounds in prone, leaving the range in sixth place, but only lost four seconds on Norwegian biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjorndalen in the second loop.
It might have seemed like the effort would tire Nordgren enough to result in a disastrous standing stage. But he only used one spare round and left the range in fifth place, a position he maintained until the handoff.
“Leif also made a really good race on the second leg,” Nilsson said. “He did not lose much to the ‘king of biathlon’ Björndalen.”
It was undeniably one of the best performances of his career so far, and bodes well for the future of U.S. biathlon.
“It was really fun to race here,” Nordgren said in a U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) press release. “I missed my first extra in prone- that wasn’t good, but besides it was a great race. I was happy that I still had some energy left on the last loop and stayed up front there.”
Jeremy Teela, a three-time Olympian, skied the third leg. His experience showed: he cleaned prone with no extra rounds and was still in fifth place after the first loop. But a trip to the penalty loop after the standing stage dropped the team to ninth, a position that Tim Burke was unable to change as the anchor leg. He repeated Teela’s performance by cleaning prone and then using all his spare rounds in standing and still skiing one penalty loop.
“Teela and Burke were okay, but not perfect,” Nilsson said. “That shows that if all four have a really solid race we are up there. We changed the order of the men a little bit from the past… That was a good result for us and shows that we have the level to fight for the top six at least.”
With the result the U.S. scored much-needed Nations Cup points and moved up to 12th in the rankings.
“Overall we are happy with the progression toward the World Cups in Presque Isle and Fort Kent, Maine, and the World Championships in Russia, and are confident that we will perform on a good level,” Nilsson said. “We are especially happy with the ski speed. During this break we have time to adjust and work on the shooting part a little more.”
At the front of the race, Germany’s third-leg skier Arnd Pfeiffer moved his team into the first place and anchor leg Michael Greis extended the lead to 18 seconds over the day’s biggest surprise, Italy.
“I was warming up so I did not follow the whole competition before my leg,” Greis said in a press conference. “However, I realized that my teammates had done a very good job and it was up to me to finish the job.”