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SOCHI, Russia — Deciding whether it’s better to start sooner, later or somewhere between in the races at the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center has been more or less a crapshoot at the Olympics, and before the men’s biathlon 20-kilometer individual start on Thursday, the athletes and their coaches essentially took a stab at what they predicted could be best.
Canada’s Jean-Philippe Le Guellec figured the second or third seed (out of four) might be a good place to take advantage of the soft conditions — presumably warmer for the 6 p.m. start then cooling as the race went on.
Le Guellec found himself at the end of the second seed on Thursday’s 89-man start list. Good enough, he thought.
His teammate, Brendan Green started later in bib 69, and while the course didn’t speed up, and the temperatures didn’t drop anywhere close to freezing (it went from 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the start to 47.5 degrees at the finish), Green managed just fine.
The 27-year-old from Canmore, Alberta, notched his best Olympic result in 21st, topping his sprint finish of 23rd and his pursuit performance of 35th, also in Sochi. Green didn’t race any individual events at the 2010 Olympics, but helped the men’s relay place 10th.
Green finished Thursday night out with two misses — one in the first standing and another in the prone. Penalized two minutes, he finished 2:33.6 back from French winner Martin Fourcade. One fewer miss and he would’ve been in the top 10.
Perhaps most surprisingly, he had his best race of the Olympics on the warmest evening yet, which made for slushy conditions that typically bother his back.
“I actually felt not too bad on the skis today, which was nice,” Green said. “I think I skied all right. I had two penalties … which usually is OK, but I guess on this range you need a little more than that.”
Given his consistency at these Games, Green said he’s been “fairly happy” with the last week, but knows he has more to give.
“The potential’s there, I’m just waiting to capitalize on it,” he said.
Another Canadian, Nathan Smith placed 25th, 3:09.6 behind Fourcade with three penalties (0+2+0+1). Despite the misses, Smith was one of the quickest to get his shots off, cleaning the first prone with the third-fastest shooting time and cleaning the first standing with the second-fastest time. Even with a miss on the final stage, he was the third-fastest shooter to put him second overall for shooting time.
So far this week, Smith has placed 11th in the pursuit and 13th in the sprint as well to add to his first Olympic resume.
Le Guellec placed 35th (+3:53.8) with two penalties, one in each standing. The result came three days after he went from leading to finishing 26th in Monday’s pursuit. In the preceding sprint, he captured a career best fifth at his third Olympics.
“Ski-shape wise, I wasn’t in the same game that I was in the sprint or pursuit,” he said. “For me, conditions like this, I have a hard time getting around the course, especially [when] it’s a super difficult course, and the skis today were just slowing down after each lap.”
Le Guellec was on his “number two” racing skis after his No. 1 pair broke when he crashed in the pursuit.
“That makes a one-percent difference, [but] it makes a difference over 20 k,” he explained.
Perhaps the worst moment of Le Guellec’s race (and perhaps a better one for American Lowell Bailey) was when Bailey, who started a minute behind Le Guellec in 58th, caught the Canadian on the third of five laps.
“I could see him behind me, like, ‘God dammit!’ ” Le Guellec said with a laugh. “I knew that today was not the day for skiing. I’m happy with the shooting, but with today’s ski shape I knew I wasn’t going to be in the mix for sure so it was just to finish the race and call it a day essentially. There’s not much more you can do.”
Bailey Notches Eighth, Burke 44th
After Bailey placed eighth for US Biathlon’s best Olympic result, Tim Burke was the second American in 44th (+4:49.5). He missed two in both standing stages, and with the 21st-fastest time on the first loop and 10th-fastest third loop, he was hoping to put a better race together soon.
“I knew it was going to be a really tough 20 k here. It’s such a challenging course,” Burke said. “And after my first two races here, I felt pretty awful. I was definitely pretty conservative out of the start. I wanted to make sure I didn’t die at the end. The skiing turned out to actually, ironically, be okay today. It was the shooting that didn’t come through.”
But he wasn’t going to let four penalties in a four-stage race get him down.
“That happens sometimes,” he said. “My first two races here were 90 percent. Today’s 80 percent, and that’s above my World Cup average. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have that day where the skiing and shooting lined up at the same time.”
In the sprint, Burke placed 19th and then finished 22nd in the pursuit. He said it took a while to recover from Monday’s pursuit, and he had no idea how his body was going to feel for Thursday’s race.
“It was nice today to actually feel closer to normal,” he said. “It felt better than I expected.”
Unofficially, Burke made the final spot for the 12.5 k mass start on Sunday. U.S. head coach Per Nilsson said he made a step forward with his skiing on Thursday.
“He’s just, I think, in his head,” Nilsson said. “I think he looked better and better.”
In his first Olympics, American Russell Currier was looking for his first top 40 of the season after placing 61st in the sprint. He finished 50th on Thursday (+5:35.8) with four penalties (2+2+0+0).
It was an improvement over the sprint, in which he had four misses in prone.
“For me it was OK, but the level this sport’s at now, OK is not as good anymore,” Currier, 26, said. “You either need to have a lot of experience or the race of your life. It could’ve been a lot worse and I’m glad to have improved on the day, but I think it’s another reminder of how cutthroat it is now.”
Currier said the most challenging part of the Olympics has been waiting between races — especially the five-day spell he had between the sprint and individual events.
“When you’re warmed up and you have a late start and you have to just hang out, it’s not any more stressful than a time trial in the summer, it’s just knowing that you have so much to do before you get to the finish line,” he said.
Canadian Scott Perras placed 59th in the second race of his first Olympics (after finishing 74th in the sprint), with four penalties (0+3+1+0) on Thursday.
Leif Nordgren of the U.S. was 83rd with six penalties, missing one on the first prone and five on the first standing.
— Chelsea Little and Nat Herz contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.