It’s not the Super Bowl yet, but there was no lack of enthusiasm from fans greeting World Cup biathlon’s return to northern Maine.
Hundreds of spectators turned out to the Nordic Heritage Center on Friday morning to watch Germany’s Arnd Peiffer win the men’s 10 k sprint in Presque Isle, the first elite-level international race on American soil in seven years.
Peiffer, a burly 23-year-old, shot clean to top France’s Martin Fourcade and Russia’s Ivan Tcherezov, on a chilly day that still felt cozy, despite the temperature.
With hundreds of schoolchildren, teachers, and parents packing bleachers overlooking the stadium—and a penalty loop that circumnavigated the Heritage Center’s main lodge—Presque Isle’s residents got an intimate look at a sport that rarely travels to this side of the Atlantic.
Organizers estimated that 3,000 spectators took in the races on Friday; FasterSkier tallied roughly 1,000 in the stadium.
Regardless, there were dozens waving flags, wearing hats emblazoned with stars-and-stripes, and even brandishing signs they’d made for adopted international athletes and countries. Local schools bused in entire classrooms to watch.
Elaine Millett, a special ed teacher from the nearby town of Ashland, was sent to the races as a substitute at the last minute, when one of her co-workers called in sick.
“It was like winning the lottery,” she said.
The American faithful were rewarded with a solid, if unsensational performance by their men’s team.
Gearing back up after some volume training in his home of Lake Placid, Lowell Bailey led the U.S. in Friday’s race in 25th place, with one penalty, 1:50 behind Peiffer. Jay Hakkinen was next, in 27th, as Jeremy Teela and Leif Nordgren also placed in the top-60, meaning that four Americans qualified to race in Sunday’s pursuit.
Bailey said that he struggled with cold, slow snow on the 3.3-kilometer loop used in the sprint—a grinding course with the typically relentless, undulating terrain favored by trail designer John Morton, who laid out the system here.
“There’s not a lot of recovery on this course. There’s no real steep hills, but that being said, there’s just a lot of climbing, and all the recovery is this really quick, turny stuff. It’s difficult, for sure…I think I underestimated it,” Bailey said, adding that he also “could feel the last couple weeks of training, today.”
With just 72 men’s starters, the competition in Presque Isle wasn’t quite as fierce as it normally is on the World Cup circuit; the last World Cup sprint in Italy in January had 95.
Some athletes simply elected not to make the trip across the Atlantic, while others are competing in the Asian Winter Games in Kazakhstan. Norwegian star Emil Hegle Svendsen is taking some time for training, before competing in the cross-country World Championships in a month; he’ll fly into Fort Kent for next week’s races. The participation of his teammate, legendary Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, is still pending.
Make no mistake, though—there were still plenty of big guns, including World Cup overall leader Tarjei Boe of Norway. Boe cleaned his first stage, in prone, but then took a penalty in standing to remove himself from contention, ending up fourth. Afterwards, he told FasterSkier that his skis weren’t great—and that his fitness wasn’t at its best, either. Indeed, both Peiffer and Fourcade were faster out on course.
“The shape is okay, but not in my top,” Boe said. “It’s a lot of competitions during the winter—I’m going for the yellow jersey…and
I have to do every race to win it. I just have to continue to make good results. This is not a bad day, but of course I want to win.”
Peiffer shot clean to take his first race since last January, finishing 16 seconds up on Fourcade.
After a heavy racing schedule over the past few weeks, German team doctor Jan Wuestenfeld told FasterSkier that the country’s biathletes were not anticipating great results in the U.S.
“The whole team was, like, finding their way again,” he said.
Wuestenfeld said that the atmosphere in Presque Isle was “much more relaxed” than typical World Cups, which also likely helped.
With the win, Peiffer will lead out Sunday’s pursuit, which is based on the results from Friday’s sprint. Just four other men start within a minute of the German, though with four shooting stages, there will undoubtedly be some new faces mixing into the top five.
First, though, racing in Presque Isle continues on Saturday, with a mixed relay consisting of two men and two women. The Americans will start Hakkinen, Teela, Sarah Studebaker, and Haley Johnson.
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.