Last week in Hochfilzen, Austria, the American men said they were easing into the season in order to build to what really mattered: World Championships. Lowell Bailey was tenth in the puruit and Tim Burke was 23rd — results they were satisfied with in light of their more important winter-long goals.
On Thursday in Pokljuka, Slovenia, Burke turned in a fourth-place finish in the 10 k sprint behind winner Jakov Fak (SLO). If this is “easing” into the season, one has to wonder what full force will look like down the road. The performance is Burke’s best of the winter thus far and came at the same venue where he first put on the yellow leader’s bib in 2009.
“I have had some of my best races here in the past and the course suits me very well so I knew today could be a good opportunity,” Burke said of his expectations prior to Thursday.
“Of course it would have been nice to get on the podium but I really did everything that I could out there today so I am happy with that.”
Remarkably, Burke says he still hasn’t hit peak form. Prior to leaving the line he wasn’t sure whether his energy level would be enough for an outstanding performance.
“I have struggled a bit during the last few races with my form,” he wrote in an email. “Even today I was still missing my top gear. I skied a steady race but I just could not really pick it up on the last loop like I wanted.”
Burke had the twelfth-fastest overall course time on Thursday, but his race was made on the range. He shot perfectly, prone and standing, and was very efficient, posting the eighth-fastest composite range time. It was no small task, as blustery wind made steady shooting difficult.
“The difference today for me was on the shooting range,” Burke said. “The conditions were a little tricky with some gusty wind so I was very happy to go clean with fast shooting. My goal today on the shooting range was to be aggressive. Since I have not been feeling 100% on the skis, I can’t afford to give away 15 seconds in shooting time. So today I tried to push the pace a little with the shooting and it worked out.”
U.S. Biathlon Head Coach Per Nilsson said the Pokljuka course suits Burke’s skiing strengths well, and that overall Burke executed the 10 k perfectly — “pacing of the skiing was good, and shooting just like a normal training.”
“I am really impressed how he carried through all parameters of the race,” Nilsson added. “Everybody [on] the team is really happy and [today] will get us a boost for the rest of the week.”
Bailey Rallies Through Toe Fracture, Finishes in the Points
Lowell Bailey, the next American to finish behind Burke, finished 36th (+1:38.6) in spite of fracturing his toe this week. He missed two shots, both in the standing position, and skied the 50th-best overall course time.
All things considered, Bailey was simply happy he could put on a bib. The fracture caused him a “dull pain” in his toe that he tried to minimize on Thursday by not using it to balance on the outside of his foot.
“I’m happy that I was able to race. Period. I have to keep the thought that I was sitting in a doctor’s office two days ago and wondering if I could salvage anything out of this race series,” Bailey wrote in an email.
Through the first stage Bailey was still within reach of the top 20, only 19 seconds off the leaders, and might have held on had he not missed two targets the second time around.
“I was right in there today until the second stage,” he said. “I’m frustrated that I threw away a great opportunity by missing two, but given the circumstances, I’ll take a few World Cup points and head for the pursuit.”
Bailey needed to score points on Thursday in order to have a chance at a starting spot in the first mass-start of the season on Sunday; only the top 25 men on the World Cup after Saturday’s pursuit automatically get to race. After his 36th in the sprint Bailey is ranked 29th overall, 14 points out of 25th.
“It looks like I need a pretty good result on Saturday in order to get into the mass start. But, I’ll take the five World Cup points and prepare for Saturday!” he said.
After Bailey, Russell Currier and Jay Hakkinen were the last two Americans in 89th and 92nd, respectively.
Scott Perras led the Canadian squad in 34th (+1:33.0), shooting clean on lap one but missing two targets in the second stage. Scott Gow (CAN) was 50th (+1:54.9) and Jean Philippe LeGuellec (CAN) struggled in 83rd.
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.