Last year, the world’s best biathletes got a taste of northern Maine when the World Cup made stops in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
This season, the top racers are staying firmly ensconced in Europe. But instead of letting the sport get too comfortable on what could be considered its home turf, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) sent their eponymously named IBU Cup circuit across the Atlantic, and for the last week the “second World Cup” has been contested in Canmore, Alberta.
For the Canadians, bringing the races to their country has been huge. But even the Americans got behind the effort. Continental solidarity was high.
“This is as close to home as I will ever get for an international competition and I’m still in the Rockies, so it feels like home here,” said U.S. biathlete Lanny Barnes, a native of Durango, Colorado, who podiumed in Canmore. “The Canadians have put on some great races and are always very welcoming to the U.S. team. This is probably one of the most beautiful venues on the world.”
On both Saturday and Sunday, the athletes competed in sprints – 7.5 k for women, 10 k for men, a prone and a standing shooting stage apiece. On Wednesday, they doubled their distance for individual races, which featured four shooting stages instead of two and a one-minute penalty for each missed shot. On Thursday, it was back to sprints, and the penalty loop if the athletes made any errors.
Over the four days of racing, North Americans picked up three wins, three more podium finishes, and a total of 21 top-tens.
“These races have been great for Canadian biathlon,” Biathlon Canada High Performance Director Chris Lindsay told FasterSkier.
Nathan Smith, who raced to all three of the Canadian wins at the races, agreed.
“These were the highest caliber races to be held in Canada outside of the Olympics in recent history,” he said. “It’s good for publicity and getting new people involved in the sport. Our team got a lot of medals and top-6 results here… you can feel the team’s momentum.”
Other athletes confirmed that there was a loud fan base for the weekend races, although they lamented lower midweek attendance.
“It was too bad none of the schools came out to watch on the weekdays, but we still have a good number of people out there cheering,” said Canadian biathlete Rosanna Crawford. “Hopefully this will lead to World Cups being held in Canmore.”
Men’s Races: Domination By Smith
The story of the week – not only for the Canadian team, but for the circuit itself – was the near-total domination by 26-year-old Calgary native Smith.
Smith, who trains in Canmore, started out by winning the opening sprint by a mere five seconds over Russia’s Sergey Klyachin; Norwegian Martin Eng, who has an 11th-place World Cup finish to his name, was another second and a half behind.
In the next sprint, Smith shot clean and extended his lead, this time finishing 40 seconds ahead of Friedrich Pinter of Austria. After sitting out the individual race, Smith made it three-for-three with a four-second victory over Pinter in Thursday’s race.
“To have my first IBU win in Canmore was… amazing!” Smith told FasterSkier. “I’ve been training here since I started biathlon. I know a lot of the volunteers, so I’m proud that I could reward them in a small way for all their hard work over the years.”
Smith’s path to dominance really started at IBU Cup races in Obertilliach, Austria in December, where he placed third in a 10 k sprint, the first podium of his career.
“The bronze I got in December in Obertilliach was very special,” Smith said. “That was the first time I’d ever put good skiing and shooting together in an international race.”
After two more top-ten finishes in IBU Cup action in January, Smith made a brief jaunt onto the World Cup himself, producing a top result of 47th in a sprint in Antholz, Italy. When he returned to Canada for these races, he knew he could once again be near the top.
“All year I had been having really good time trials amongst the national team and I was hoping for a breakout performance,” he said.
He got it, and even though Canadian events are sometimes lightly attended by international teams, in this case Smith still had to beat out the IBU Cup’s best. Pinter, for example, has a handful of World Cup podiums to his name and owns a World Championships relay medal; the top three racers in the overall IBU Cup standings were also in the mix.
“The big difference here is how the pack thins out a little farther down the result sheet,” Smith said. “I think it was mostly the slower skiers who were missing. I think my races wouldve been at or very near the top if in Europe…. I was within striking distance of first at the IBU cup in Italy twice except my shooting wasn’t as good.”
Being in familiar surroundings, Smith explained, helped achieve his career-best performances.
“I knew I would have a little leg up on a lot of the other competitors because I got back to Canmore a couple weeks before the first race,” Smith said, before laughing it off. “Fair is fair though, since most of the time its the other way around!”
In the first sprint, Smith was joined in the top ten by three-time Olympian Robin Clegg, who missed two shots to Smith’s one and finished 55 seconds back in ninth.
In the second two sprints, it was Marc-Andre Bedard who kept him company, placing seventh and fifth.
“I had great races, but it didn’t feel like it,” Bedard said of his results. “I think I’m getting in better shape, and it’s just starting to feel good. There were quite a bit fewer people here than in Europe, so that helps the results for sure, but compared to the top guys my ski times are really better [than earlier this season].”
Bedard liked the atmosphere in Canmore, but said that if he could get absolutely everything he wanted, the races would be on the other side of the country: “It was pretty cool, but I’d love to race at home in Quebec once in my life at an international race!”
Jeremy Teela led the U.S. men, finishing 11th, 13th, 25th, and 12th.
Women’s Races: Depth and Consistency
The North American women couldn’t match Smith’s domination. They did, however, have something else going for them: depth. While a Canadian or American woman never topped the podium, Canadians Yolaine Oddou and Megan Heinicke and American Lanny Barnes all took their turns on the lower steps. Twice, the North Americans placed five women in the top ten.
In the opening sprint, Rosanna Crawford led the way in eighth followed one second later by Oddou in ninth; four more North Americans packed the top twenty.
“I was a bit disappointed in the race Saturday with the missed shot in prone,” said Barnes, who placed 12th. “You can’t afford to miss on a day like that with perfect conditions. The great thing was we had another opportunity on the same course and same race format to give it another go on Sunday.”
With a fire in her belly, Barnes stepped up her game in the second sprint – as did the rest of the North Americans. Oddou placed third, Barnes and Heinicke tied for fourth, and Crawford and American Laura Spector placed ninth and tenth.
Success continued in the weekday races, with Heinicke placing second and Barnes third in the individual, and then Crawford placing sixth in the sprint and leading teammate Melanie Schultz, Spector, Heinicke, and American Tracy Barnes in a six-through-ten sweep.
At 21 years old, Oddou is in her first season of racing on the IBU Cup, and these were her best results by far. Crawford is a 2010 Olympian, but also considered the races to be highlights.
“It was great to be racing in my home town, and I had my best results of the season and great shooting in all the sprint races,” Crawford told FasterSkier. “I was top Canadian two out of three sprints so that was very exciting for me.”
For Crawford, there was a little added motivation, as her mother had just been through surgery for breast cancer but still managed to get out on the trails to cheer.
“Things had been pretty stressful for me leading into these races,” Crawford said. “But she is such a strong and amazing women and is one of the main reasons I have made it this far in biathlon. She was out there everyday with her cow bells and cheering louder than anyone else!”
Lanny Barnes was the most consistent of the Americans, and was particularly pleased with her podium finish on Wednesday.
“I knew I was in race because I could practically hear the announcer everywhere on course and our staff kept giving me splits of leading the race,” said Barnes, who led through the first half of the race and then regained her lead on the penultimate loop before tiring before the finish.
“I probably started out a little harder than I wanted to, and lost a little time in the end, but was happy that my skiing is coming around,” she explained. “I was bummed that [twin sister] Tracy wasn’t right in there with me, but she is just getting over a cold otherwise I think she might have give me a run for the money!”
Tracy Barnes told FasterSkier that due to illness she had taken the races “one day at a time,” and was happy, though not thrilled, with her performances.
“I’ve placed in the top ten several times this season and know I’m capable of it,” she said.