Although it was part of the U.S. biathlon team’s plan in the early season to focus on training and build toward World Championships, not worrying too much about the first races, it never feels good to flounder. And after a sensational start to the previous season, Lowell Bailey was perhaps one of those most wishfully thinking that he might start improving.
Today in Hochfilzen, Austria, it was mission accomplished, as Bailey turned 36th in the sprint into a tenth-place finish in the 12.5 k pursuit.
“A much better day for me today,” Bailey wrote in an e-mail he sent to several news sources. “I went into the race with the plan to be aggressive on the shooting range and to try and ski within my level at the moment. I was able to work into the race and after two clean prone stages I found myself up in the top twenty-five.”
In last week’s pursuit in Östersund, Sweden, Bailey faced a similar challenge – moving up through a large chunk of the field. In that race, he faltered on the range and after gaining a good position at the halfway point, slipped back into the 20’s. In fact, that has been a pattern for the American over the last several seasons.
“The third stage was a bit windy and I think alot of the guys I was around missed so that by the time I came in for the final standing stage, I was in 13th and within sight of the top ten,” Bailey wrote. “It’s interesting because pretty much the exact same thing happened in the pursuit here last year. Except last year, I missed two in my final stage and fell out of the top fifteen. Today the targets went down and I left the range in eighth.”
He was ultimately unable to hold that position, losing ground to Dominik Landertinger of Austria and Evgeny Ustyugov of Russia on the final 2.5 k loop; those two were on a mission, and wowed the spectators with a sprint for eighth place. Nonetheless, Bailey was able to hold on to the top ten and turn in his best performance of the young season. He was buoyed by a surprising amount of fan support, he said: “The crowds are awesome here – a lot of enthusiastic USA fans! Surprising to see so far from home!”
To those around him, shooting clean in the final stage was a big accomplishment and hopefully signals that he can overcome the patterns of the past.
“It was really exciting to see him clean the last standing,” U.S. Biathlon Association President Max Cobb wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “That’s something he’s been working really hard to be able to do. You can ski off a miss early in the race, but if you miss in the last stage there is just not enough skiing left to be able to catch up in the last loop and everyone goes all out to finish the race.”
Overall, Bailey said it was nice to be back on track, and getting toward race shape instead of just recovering from hard training sessions.
“’I’m happy with the race and glad to have bounced back from a disappointing sprint,” he wrote. “I’m really looking forward to the relay tomorrow.”
Tim Burke did not have the same luck in the later rounds of the range, missing four shots in total of which three came in the final two stages. After starting 22nd, he was unable to move into the top-20 and finished 23rd. The third U.S. starter, Russell Currier, gained a few spots to move from 57th up to 52nd.
Meanwhile, Canada’s Jean Philippe Le Guellec took an opposite trajectory to Bailey’s. After finishing tenth in the sprint and shooting clean through two stages, the race got “odd,” he told FasterSkier.
“For one, my skis were not great and I ended up being passed a whole lot throughout the race, which was very frustrating,” he wrote in an e-mail. “As much as I felt good today, it felt like everyone was on steroids. Everything derailed even more with my epic three misses standing. I was the last on the range and ended up being the wind blocker. That on top of having to work extra hard to try to even keep up to the field ended up costing in standing. On the second bout I missed my third and jerked the trigger for the fourth round, which went off (over the targets).”
Despite having “not a very satisfying day,” there were a few good moments for the Canadian. On the third lap, he was in a pack led by Martin Fourcade of France and Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway. When asked whether the pace of those stars was what led to his problems in standing shooting, Le Guellec replied that they did not.
“Paradoxically, the lap with Martin and Ole was my most enjoyable,” he said. “These guys are so smooth, it’s a pleasure to ski behind skiers like that.”
After a rough November, Le Guellec’s teammate Scott Perras turned in a career-best 25th-place performance in the sprint yesterday. Today, he was unable to hold his position in the sprint, where he was undone by poor shooting. Without a single clean stage and after accumulating six penalties in total, Perras slipped to 43rd.
It was unlikely to dampen his confidence too much, though.
“For sure JP’s win [last weekend] sparked some momentum, so I’m just jumping on the band wagon and having fun doing my part,” he wrote in an e-mail Saturday morning. “When you are training with guys like Brendan [Green] and JP and can keep up, you know you should be in the ball park come winter. A huge difference so far this year has been shooting speed and accuracy. Training with Nathan [Smith] and JP who are so quick and often accurate, I knew I had to get there and I put the time in. Come the end of March we will see if it all paid off.”
More Canadian Success in Women’s Pursuit
After a huge personal best in the sprint, Rosanna Crawford told FasterSkier that she was nervous going into the pursuit with bib 24. She knew she was in for a different experience.
As it turned out, it was a better experience.
“Today was by far the most fun I’ve had racing!” Crawford told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I’ve never really done a pursuit where there were people around me, I was always fighting for last place, so this was great to be able to ski with a pack and move up.”
With just three misses after twenty shots, Crawford was able to stay in 25th place, for the second top-30 finish of her career. There was a tight moment after she missed two shots in the first prone stage – never the way a biathlete wants to start a race – but she later regained her confidence.
“I did have the fastest prone time, and my misses were just splitters, so I made sure to be calm and take it one shot at a time for the next prone,” she said. “Standing was good and I was happy to shoot clean on my last bout.”
Megan Heinicke joined Crawford by skiing all the way from 57th up to 29th, on the merit of a single penalty. Heinicke only matched that result once last season, at World Championships. All in all, it was a confidence-building day for the team.
“I feel like this weekend has shown me I can be in the top 30 and with even better shooting I can maybe crack the top 20,” Crawford wrote.
For the Americans, Sara Studebaker moved from 58th up to 47th with three penalties, a major improvement as, like Bailey and Burke, she seems to be settling into the routine of racing after a tough start in Östersund. Susan Dunklee started in 31st position and was clean through two rounds, but missed a disastrous seven of her last ten shots.
Dunklee posted a short poem on her facebook and twitter pages:
Pursuit today started out quite well;
But the standing targets I could not fell.
Clean! Clean! Three… Four…
Tomorrow hoping for a little more.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.