HOCHFILZEN, Austria – Speaking after he finished the third leg of the World Cup 4 x 7.5 k relay on Saturday, Jeremy Teela was prophetic about what would happen, even though he had tagged off in sixth.
“Any time you have Lowell [Bailey] and Tim [Burke] in start positions one and two for a relay, they might come in first place and tag off, and you might come in tenth,” he said. “You just go for it. It’s a relay and yeah, you want to be safe, but not too safe.”
The U.S. men certainly went for it today, and the team was in podium position for much of Bailey and Burke’s legs over the first half of the competition. The name of the game was to shoot well and be ready to attack – and even a few spare rounds here or there did not set them back too far. For instance, Bailey used one spare in standing, but moved from seventh coming out of the range to third when he tagged off to Burke.
“I went out of standing with a 10-second gap to close, so I really pushed on the first part of the loop, and I just didn’t quite have it on that last climb, but I tried to keep Tim within contact,” he said. “I would have liked to clean, but at the end I was able to get out and shoot that extra round quickly and get back up with the leaders, so I was happy with that.”
For his part, Burke stayed right in that spot until his own standing stage, when he used two spare rounds and then had an unfortunate mishap with a pole, dropping it as he picked it up from the shooting mat. He had to turn around as he skied off, retrieve the pole, and then try to catch up to the leaders. It didn’t work as well as it had for Bailey, and he was left skiing his last loop alone as Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway hammered away at the lead.
The two spares? Those weren’t too much of a problem. As it happened, much of the field struggled on that stage, with many spare rounds used by everyone. In the midst of that second leg, the snow really started to come down on the course.
“I was really happy to hear that,” Burke said of the clangs of bullet not meeting target. “The mats were pretty snowy and slippery. So that wasn’t the easiest. But it wasn’t windy or anything. It could have been a lot worse.”
Bjørndalen, for instance, also used two. It was the pole that bothered Burke more than anything.
“It’s something that – I’ve never done that before,” he said. “That cost me getting a ride with that group, which would have been key. The way the course is, you kind of go down for half of it and then turn around when you hit the bottom really rested after being in the draft. So that was tough. I managed to limit the damage.”
Teela used two spares as well, and kept the team in sixth place although he struggled to keep up on the final loop.
“The relay felt good, but it’s a short race, and I kind of died,” he explained. “I need to get a little bit stronger to be able to push harder.”
The big question mark was Leif Nordgren, the team’s usual anchor leg who sat out the sprint because he’s been feeling sick.
“Leif is back to anchor,” Burke said after he finished his own leg. “We’ll see – he’s been more or less on bed rest all week. Maybe he’ll be super rested, you never know with those things!”
Teela, too, seemed to have confidence.
“Normally, in the past, before Leif came on strong, I used to be the anchor,” he said. “But Leif has really come along and he’s super fast with a really good kick.”
Nordgren, in all honesty, probably did better than you might expect for someone who just two days ago was going on a short jog, which was at that point a victory. He hasn’t been training much, but skied the 14th-fastest anchor leg. He also used two spare rounds in each shooting stage.
“Race went okay for me considering,” Nordgren wrote in an email. “I’ve been sick all week, today was my second time on skis all week, so I wasn’t expecting too much. I could tell though in the last kilometer or so though that I hadn’t trained at all. I am really disappointed to have let the team slip so far down after the great races put together by the other three. But that’s how it was today.”
Neither his shooting nor his skiing were among his best in relay performances, but one alone may have kept the U.S. in the top six.
“This is one of the closest relays I can remember, with 11 teams only 1:25 behind the leaders, that’s how high the level of the field is now,” Nordgren wrote. “I know that we’ll be in better shape getting closer and closer to the Olympics, so I’m excited to see what future relays bring this season.”
As it was they finished 11th, but at the back of a sprint finish which also included eighth-place Switzerland. They were 25 seconds out of the top six.
Throughout the race, the team had just tried to stay smart. Part of that came on the shooting range.
“I tried to stay in my own shooting and do my own thing even though people shoot really fast in that last stage,” Bailey said.
“A good day means you’re sleeping when you’re shooting,” Teela said, agreeing with the sentiment that staying calm was key. “You’re not thinking. Once you wake up from your shooting sleep slumber, things go wrong. Once your brain gets involved, it can cause problems. So it was normal good shooting for me. I just did the thing I’ve been doing for 18 years.”
The other part of the stay-smart strategy was not to lead. And so that’s why you could see Bailey sitting in second place for much of the first and second loops of the course.
“I tried to just hang with the person I was with,” he said. “I tried to stay in second. I felt like going into the lead with some of the headwinds wasn’t a good advantage. I could save some energy by drafting a little bit. So that’s why the pace was really slow in the first lap. I probably could have pushed ten seconds but I don’t think it would have gotten me much. You always have to make that decision in the first leg.”
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.