Initially Discouraged After Sprint Race, North American Men Put Three in Top Twenty at World Championships

Chelsea LittleMarch 3, 2012
Tim Burke cresting a hill in Ruhpolding, Germany, en route to tenth place. Photo: NordicFocus/USBA.

RUHPOLDING, Germany – Not a single one of the North American men was pleased with their race in the World Championships 10 k sprint today – at least that’s what they said at the finish.

One after another, the biathletes reported that they felt slow. Tim Burke. Jean Phillipe Le Guellec. Lowell Bailey. Russell Currier. Nathan Smith. Marc-Andre Bedard.

Here’s a typical soundbite, this time from Le Guellec.

“Skiing wasn’t really awesome, actually,” the Canadian told FasterSkier just after finishing. “Skis were really good, but my ski shape was really not so good. I couldn’t get moving.”

Burke leading Dominik Landertinger of Austria out of the range.

It was startling, then, to look at the final results and see them so close to the front. Burke led the way in tenth, with Le Guellec 14th and Bailey 20th.

“I was definitely a little surprised that I ended up tenth today when I felt like I was not in top form,” Burke wrote in an e-mail later that evening.

There were a couple factors which led to the men thinking they had done far worse. First, having an early bib turned out to be a big advantage, and the sun bore down on the Chiemgau arena and the ruts in the track became deeper and deeper. Of the first ten starters, five placed in the top 11. Burke, starting 12th, was fifth when he crossed the line, which usually doesn’t inspire confidence.

But it became more and more difficult to break into the top ten as the afternoon wore on. Carl Johan Bergman, starting with bib 41, pulled off what seemed like an impossible feat when he finished third.

Then, there was an uncharacteristic pittance of clean sheets in the men’s field.

Le Guellec, skiing well in spite of himself.

“Normally on this range, with the downhill approach, everyone shoots really well,” Burke explained in his e-mail. “Maybe it was the pressure of World Champs or the 30,000 fans, but for some reason the guys field shot poorly today.  I think this is why I was able to stay in the top ten. Normally with the feeling I had today I would expect to finish around 20.”

Regardless, many of the North American men had quietly successful days.

Burke’s top-ten, which is the third-best World Championships performance of his career, came at what is one of his least favorite venues on the circuit.

“I’ve always sort of struggled on this course – it’s a lot of short steep climbs and quick downhills, and it’s tough for me, I like a working course a little bit more,” he said directly after the race. “Some of these guys are a little quicker and do a little better on these steep climbs.”

Adding to the choppiness of the Ruhpolding course was the drastic difference in conditions on different sections of the trail.

“The shady parts were actually really icy,” Burke said. “So you went from like six inches of corn snow to ice – it made for some un-rhythmic skiing, for sure.”

That feeling of never quite getting in a groove, and being constantly a bit off balance, is probably what led Burke to come away with a negative feeling.

Bailey leaving the stadium on his first loop.

Like Burke, Le Guellec, who started with bib 21, underestimated his performance by about a half.

“If I’m top 30, I guess I’ll be all right,” he told FasterSkier after the race. “Tomorrow’s another day.”

Le Guellec had just one penalty, and was happy with his shooting – especially so since he felt that with slow skiing, he needed something to rely on for tomorrow’s pursuit race.

“The pursuit race is very tactical, so hopefully ski shape will be there, but you can get by with good shooting,” he said. “And then the individual is in a little while still, so I’m hopeful that I should be [skiing] fine.”

Does he think that he can improve his ski speed over the course of the week?

“Aw, hell, I hope so,” he laughed.

Bailey after hitting his tenth of ten shots.

Bailey shot clean, but was practically despondent about his skiing after finishing 20th. After the race he seemed unable to comprehend how things had gone so wrong; usually a fast skier who can get by with a penalty or two, today he had just the 43rd-fastest course time.

“I didn’t feel very fresh,” he said, pausing. “I’m not sure why. I felt really good coming in. I expected to feel better skiing. I definitely was struggling, bigtime.”

The trio will all be in contention the pursuit, with Burke starting 58 seconds behind Martin Fourcade, the winner of the sprint, Le Guellec 1:10 back, and Bailey trailing by another five seconds.

All Four Canadians Will Start in Pursuit

Le Guellec will be joined in the pursuit by all of his teammates. It’s a big accomplishment for Canada, especially given that they are missing star skier Brendan Green. Nathan Smith placed 45th in the sprint, Scott Perras 50th, and Marc-Andre Bedard 55th.

All three have seen limited World Cup action this year, but only Perras was part of Canada’s last swing through the top-tier circuit; Smith and Bedard were racing on the IBU Cup instead, where Smith recently picked up three wins.

Given that success, he was hoping for more from today’s race.

Smith leaving the range.

“I’d been expecting better skiing,” he told FasterSkier, echoing the other men. “I think it was softer than the mixed relay today. I don’t think my skiing was as good… and eight of ten is a little worse than I’d been shooting lately. So it was okay, not a disaster, but not what I was really hoping for.”

Smith felt betrayed by his poor 88th-place starting position (which came about somewhat mysteriously – read why here).

“I didn’t ski with anyone,” he said. “I just saw that Marco was always 30, 45 seconds behind me. I could keep seeing him. But he was the only guy around the same speed as me. It was like a team time trial and I didn’t want him to get me.”

Bedard, who started one bib behind Smith, was the only man who knew the root of his skiing problems: he said that the late start threw him for a loop and he didn’t do a good enough warmup. Both were looking forward to the pursuit, where start times will be back to normal and they’ll have real competitors to ski with.

For Bedard, more than Smith, the race today was special, however, regardless of his skiing woes. The Quebec native was not expecting to be named to the team, but was called up when Green had to bow out due to his back problems.

“It’s awesome [to be here],” he said, savoring the words. “It’s really a privilege for me. I always race my best, but I wasn’t expecting to come, so I concentrated on the IBU Cups and going to nationals, and then with Brendan getting injured and having a pretty decent race in Canmore, they decided to take me here. And that was really – I train all year for this event.

Bedard shooting prone.

“It’s cool to be on World Cups, but you need to be on World Champs or Olympic Games,” he said. “Especially here. I don’t think there are going to be a lot of World Championships or Olympic Games that are this big. So this is awesome to have a chance to race in Ruhpolding, at World Championships.”

Bedard felt the love all the way around the course, he said.

“The fans here are awesome,” he said. “They are definitely sold for their country, that’s normal, that’s okay. But it’s cool to see people, you go around, even training – in the race you don’t really notice – but there’s people yelling your name, and ‘Go Canada,’ so there must be maybe ten real Canadians here but [it feels like more].”

Currier, Hakkinen Out of Pursuit

Currier heading out on course.

The remaining two Americans had rough days for a variety of reasons. Russell Currier, who is getting over what he called “some godawful virus or something,” had three penalties and a lackluster ski time to finish 63rd. He just missed the 60th-place cutoff for the pursuit, although he didn’t know it when he talked to FasterSkier at the finish line.

What he did know was that it wasn’t a good race for him.

“Eh, pretty shitty,” he said of the effort. “I was good after prone, even with the miss. But then ski speed kind of fell apart, and two misses in standing. It wasn’t a disaster or a terrible race, but not good enough at this level.”

Like Burke, he wasn’t a fan of the trails here.

Hakkinen in the penalty loop.

“I hate this course,” he said. “Even when it’s in good shape this is a terrible, terrible course. I mean that’s just my opinion.”

Still, he said that’s “just something you deal with” and that he was looking forward to the other races this week. Given that illness was the reason his ski form was off, he was confident that he’d be able to get things back together.

Hakkinen finished 91st with five penalties, four of which came in the prone stage. He was understandably uninterested in talking to the press after the race; U.S. coach Jonne Kahkonen told FasterSkier that the wind had been getting tricky as Hakkinen came into the range, and that even though he was paying attention and taking clicks to adjust to the conditions, things had gone wrong.

Full results

Race report

Chelsea Little

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