The world’s top biathletes recently competed in six races in eleven days at World Championships in Ruhpolding, Germany, but as exhausting as that may have been, their season isn’t over yet. The racers hopped on a chartered plane and headed for Siberia – home of the Russian venue Khanty-Mansiysk – to contest three more races over the extended weekend.
For American Tim Burke, the last World Cup series wasn’t simply something to check off a list before he could call it a season. After a top finish of tenth at World Championships, he knew he could do more.
“I felt that I was still in good shape after World Championships and I have always liked the tracks here in Russia,” Burke told FasterSkier. “I think the course suits my strengths well with lots of gradual climbing and little recovery.”
That turned out to be true, as Burke placed fourth in Friday’s 10 k sprint – the best finish of his season so far.
“I am very happy with my race,” he said.
Martin Fourcade of France won the two-stage competition, with Arnd Peiffer of Germany second, +5.3, and Fredrik Lindstrom of Sweden third, +6.7.
Burke ultimately finished 23 seconds behind Fourcade, but started just 30 behind the Frenchman; they had bibs 37 and 38.
“When I came into the shooting range after the first loop I could see that Martin was still shooting, so I knew that I had probably made up time on him during the first loop and was off to a good start,” Burke said.
He missed one shot in prone, and said he was “frustrated, but feeling good and put the hammer down.” A quick second loop moved him from 34th up into the top ten. After cleaning his standing stage, Burke sat in sixth, but he didn’t know that much else.
“I knew I was fighting for a top spot but I had no idea how close things were,” he explained. “We are really short staffed here this week so I did not get much info on the last loop. I only knew that I was in sixth leaving the range. But anytime you are in the top ten, you have to know that every few seconds will be a place.”
By keeping the pace high, Burke was able to leapfrog past Switzerland’s Simon Hallenbarter and Slovenia’s Jakov Fak in the standings. And it was good that he put in a charge, because a pair of Norwegians – Emil Hegle Svendsen and Tarjei Bø – were making up ground of their own, skiing their way into the top ten and finishing within two seconds of Burke.
Even though it meant that he didn’t get as much information on the course as some of his competitors might have, Burke was quick to note that the small service team didn’t hurt his performance at all.
“I have to give a huge thanks to our small staff of three here,” he said. “We have one coach and two wax technicians here, and they all did an incredible job with the skis in some really tricky conditions. A lot of teams struggled with skis today despite having over twice the staff of our team – I think that says a lot for the quality of our program.”
While there’s a gap to the podium, Saturday’s pursuit should bring plenty of opportunity for Burke, especially given the fact that he’ll be skiing with Svendsen and Bø; the trio are always among the faster skiers on the circuit, although Peiffer had the best course time on Friday.
“Very happy with my 4th place today in Russia!” Burke tweeted after the race. “Now looking forward to the pursuit tomorrow!”
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While Burke’s finish was the highlight of the day, the rest of the North American men were close behind. Jean Philippe Le Guellec placed eighth, twelve seconds behind Burke, with a single penalty. The result tied the third-best of his career.
After feeling that his ski speed was off in Ruhpolding, Le Guellec bounced back with the 13th-fastest ski time on Friday, and was pleased with his pacing.
“I felt pretty strong throughout the race, which is really important,” he told FasterSkier. “In the majority of races this winter I find I was struggling to keep up pace in the end.”
As for that one missed shot, well, he was less pleased, but said he couldn’t have done much to prevent it.
“The wind picked up and went from left to right, then right to left, then front to the back and back to front, all in the lapse of time I squeezed the trigger to release the round,” he lamented. “No wonder I missed! I have never seen such a drastic change in such short time span. The range was quite windy today and was a gamble for the field.”
Jay Hakkinen and Lowell Bailey placed 19th and 20th for the U.S., separated by just 0.7 seconds. Bailey had two penalties and Hakkinen one.
“Although technically it was not a sprint finish against Lowell, I am glad I kicked for the line and was able to hold him off as an added bonus,” Hakkinen said. “Competitiveness aside, it was another great team performance, and today showed we really are working up the ranks. This is really motivating as we transition to another season of training and preparation for the pre-Olympics.”
Meanwhile, 20th is both a blessing and a curse for Bailey these days; it’s the same result he achieved in both the sprint and pursuit at World Championships, even though he had been hoping for more. Today, he was able to find a positive to take away from the result.
“It was definitely an opportunity to do well today, but I’m happy with a 20th place considering the fact that I was 20th in the Ruhpolding sprint and had two less penalties!” he told FasterSkier. “Definitely psyched for tomorrow and looking forward to finishing the year on a high note.”
None of the men thought that World Championships had taken too much out of them – in fact, Le Guellec said that he felt better now than he did in Ruhpolding.
“I wasn’t worried about being fried for the last World Cup,” he said. “If anything, I think the training I did pre-Worlds was maybe done too close to the event to start with. Which in turn gives me some pretty good ski shape to battle out here and finish off the season.”
Not that the Championships weren’t tiring.
“Ruhplding was definitly grueling, but more in the sense that we were racing all race formats within a shorter time,” he explained. “Racing every two days or back to back is really challenging when you have six formats to go through.”
As for Hakkinen, he said that after the big event, Friday was “simply back to business on the World Cup” after having only one race he was particularly pleased with in Ruhpolding
“I was pleased to be able to put in a strong result even at the end of the season,” he said. “I was able to put in a good performance in the individual there, but I am glad my World Cup season has overshadowed those races. It is especially motivating to be fighting for the [30-man] mass start again this week, since I have been on the reserve list of every mass start this season, except World Champs. I am also in a fight for the top 30 overall World Cup ranking, so there is a lot of work to do even though there is not so much time left in the season.”
Despite his strong result on Friday, Hakkinen actually slipped a spot in the rankings, going from 33rd to 34th. That’s because Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France, who had been one spot behind him, finished 16th, and earned a few more World Cup points.
Russell Currier, the final American, placed 37th with two penalties, while Canadians Scott Perras and Nathan Smith followed in 41st and 46th. Like Burke, all the rest of the men are in tightly-packed groups on the results sheet, and will see their own excitement in Saturday’s pursuit.
And even if they don’t? There’s plenty to enjoy, Le Guellec said.
“The conditions here are the polar opposite of Ruhpolding: dry snow, hard tracks and just below zero for perfect race conditions and weather,” he explained. “Which is a real treat considering it’s Siberia and the very last set of races this season!”