Some things get better with age and U.S. biathlete Tim Burke, for now at least, appears to be one of them.
On Thursday, he placed 15th in a World Cup sprint in Oslo, Norway, in an effort he said was marred by bad ski choice. On Friday, he celebrated his 30th birthday – and then the fireworks began.
After moving up to sixth in Saturday’s pursuit, he notched another top-ten finish on Sunday when he placed eighth in the 15 k mass start.
“After yesterday’s race I felt very confident that I could be up there again today,” Burke said.
It showed: Burke relaxed at the beginning of the race, leaving the range in 15th position after the first bout of shooting. But once he got rolling, he was right in the thick of things. Burke cleaned the second prone stage, bringing his total to six clean stages in a row after shooting perfectly in the pursuit.
Confidence in hand, he moved towards the front, at times leading the main chase pack.
“I felt totally in control on the skis today,” Burke told FasterSkier. “It was no problem to follow the others, and I actually thought about going to the front to push the pace, but I did not want to get overly aggressive before standing.”
It turned out to be a good instinct. Burke ended up with three penalties, two in the initial standing stage and one in the final stage.
“I felt very relaxed with my shooting but I struggled a little with the back wind in both standing stages,” he said. “My biggest problem in standing shooting is that I tend to rock forward sometimes so when the wind picks up from the left side like today, I really have to fight.”
Despite his shooting errors, however, Burke was able to attack on the trails and maintain a good position. He never again dropped lower than 12th, and had the fifth-fastest ski time overall, including the second-fastest closing loop.
Saturday’s pursuit had been a record for Burke, in that it was his first clean sheet in a four-stage race. After that effort, he had said that “I guess it just took me [30 years] to figure out that avoiding the penalty loop makes racing much easier!”
Regarding his penalties on Sunday, Burke told FasterSkier, “As far as avoiding the penalty loop like yesterday… now that I am 30 I also forget things pretty fast.”
Burke led a slew of North Americans into the top fifteen: Canada’s Brendan Green and Jean Philippe Le Guellec finished 10th and 12th, and American Lowell Bailey placed 14th.
His teammate, Bailey, also spent time at the front of the race, skiing in second place on the second loop before collecting four penalties over the course of the last three stages.
“I’m happy with a top-fifteen of course, but I’m definitely a disappointed in my last shooting stage,” he told FasterSkier. “I missed my last two shots and that really hurt. I just wasn’t able to pull it together for the last stage. It’s really frustrating, but also motivating – I know I can be in the running for the podium!”
Green had faced equipment malfunctions in the pursuit, and was looking forward to a more relaxed day in the mass start. Unfortunately, he wrote in an e-mail, he didn’t get it.
“As ridiculous as this sounds, things did not go smoothly again,” Green explained. “This time my equipment worked perfectly fine, but it was my back today that was giving me problems.”
Back pain is a recurring problem for the Canadian, who suffered from a herniated disk in July; after a flare-up in December, he considered flying home and ending the first period of racing early. On Sunday, Green said that he actually didn’t feel much pain during the race – “I guess I was pretty pumped full of endorphins” – but as soon as he finished, his back seized up.
“By the time I made it back to the wax room it was getting hard to walk,” Green said. “Fortunately I was able to see a German doctor to try and bring some relief. We fly back to Canada tomorrow, which I’m pretty scared about now, but I’m hoping I can make it back without too much discomfort.”
Like Burke, Green started in the middle of the field, and was skiing in the teens for most of the race. He accrued just two penalties and gradually moved up from the 19th-place position he held after the second stage. After cleaning his last stage, the jets turned on, and Green shot from 12th into 10th while laying down the fifth-fastest closing loop.
“I’m definitely pumped with the result!” Green wrote. “I had my best skiing of the week and was solid on the range which paid off with a good result that I’m happy about. The last loop was a tough fight, and it’s always nice when you can make up a position or two.”
Le Guellec was almost with him at the finish: in the middle of the race, the Quebec native was skiing in fifth and sixth position, and even after missing a shot in the final stage he was sitting in eighth. But Le Guellec did not have enough gas in the tank, and lost four spots over the final three kilometers.
Still, the 10th and 12th place finishes represented one of the best days for Canada in recent memory, and added to Green’s personal-best tally here in Oslo: his previous best was a 14th-place finish, and this weekend he placed 9th, 10th, and 13th.
Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay told FasterSkier that his athletes have been on a roll all season, and that they have all been feeding on their teammates’ success.
“I feel strongly that the momentum we have been building this year has helped all of our athletes,” Lindsay said. “We are very pleased with the success of our athletes, and the [IBU Cup] athletes, at this point in the season. We are seeing career-best performances at the World Cup, IBU Cup, and Youth Olympic Games levels and I am confident that this will continue into both the World Junior Championships and World Championships in the next month.”
Lindsay’s team will be skipping the next World Cup weekend to head home for a training block, and Green said he was ready.
“Now I think it’s definitely time to return home and let everything recover fully before World Championships,” he told FasterSkier.
As for the Americans, they head with the rest of the World Cup to Kontiolahti, Finland. The venue is expected to be frigid, with the entire area under a cold-weather warning, overnight lows of -15 Fahrenheit and windchill factors almost that severe during the day.
Burke, however, thinks he can stay red hot.
“I am looking forward to Kontiolahti, because I feel like I am in a good flow now,” he said.