The first day of World Cup biathlon racing in Pokljuka, Slovenia, on Thursday, definitely didn’t produce the standard results. In the women’s 7.5 k sprint, Katharina Innerhofer of Austria collected her first win – never before had she even broken the top 20 – while in the men’s 10 k Björn Ferry of Sweden took his first victory since 2011.
The reasons? Many of the things that make biathlon an exciting sport, for instance the wind.
“Of course, that Pokljuka wind is really very fickle,” American biathlete Lowell Bailey said after today’s pursuit competition, where he placed 10th. “It can be really strong or nonexistent from one minute to the next. You have to really be alert and prepared for a lot of different scenarios.”
In the sprint, the wind wreaked havoc on the field, with the high penalty count leaving the men “so spread out – maybe more spread out than I’ve ever seen,” Bailey said. You had to have excellent reading of the wind, and probably a little bit of luck, to shoot well – and Ferry did.
But the sprint also featured snow that slowed down significantly over the course of the race, leaving later starters at a disadvantage.
“My starting bib was 34 in the sprint, so I was kind of in the middle,” said Bailey. “If you started at the back of the field, like [Norway’s] Tarjei Bø, his ski times were definitely slower than normal for him.”
In today’s pursuit, conditions were equal for everyone given the mass start format (skiers started based on their times in the sprint, so all within four minutes of each other). And it showed for athletes like Bailey, who said he felt about the same as in the sprint but had the 10th-fastest ski time in the pursuit rather than the 21st-fastest as he had in the sprint.
But Ferry, for one, showed that his sprint win was not a fluke, hanging on for second place despite two penalties. Russia’s Anton Shipulin had one penalty less and moved from second into first, collecting his first win of the season – something he had been waiting for and hoping would come at the Olympics.
Norwegian veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen moved from sixth place into third.
Skiing conditions may have been more fair for the whole field, but shooting was still tricky – that’s something that doesn’t change in Pokljuka, no matter which day you race. That’s probably why a racer like Ferry, who is quick on his skis but known even more as a good shooter, could have such success.
“Today was also definitely a challenging shooting day,” American Tim Burke said. “I think it was a little bit easier than the sprint. Still a challenge. You saw the wind going both directions, so you had to be on your toes each time you came in to the range.”
Bailey and teammate Burke started in bibs 12 and 16, and each had three penalties. They skied virtually identical times on the trail and Bailey was able to move up to 10th, winning a photo finish with Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic, while Burke slid into 13th, losing out on a sprint with Fredrik Lindström of Sweden.
“Normally it’s hard to move up into the top 15 with three penalties,” Burke said. “I think with the little trickier wind today, we definitely saw more penalties than is normal. I was happy with that shooting, and I guess on a day like today you can move forward with that.”
Both reported that despite the wind, they didn’t have to make any adjustments on the range. Bailey called his two penalties in the second prone stage “just bad shots” and Burke said that he waited a few times for gusts to move through the range.
For Burke, the race was a strong sign that he seems to be recovering from illnesses that held him back from his desired results at the Olympics and even cost him a few starts over the course of the season. He had considered ending his season after the Games, but seems to be on the right track now.
“It was really important for me to feel better than the sprint,” said the American, who had the sixth-fastest ski time today. “I knew it was going to be a big sign for me, to see how my body reacted to a hard race again, a hard effort. And I definitely felt so much better today… it’s really encouraging for me that hopefully there’s more to come in the next two weeks here.”
Leif Nordgren, the third American to earn a start in the pursuit, moved from 42nd into 31st with just two penalties.
“Today was an interesting day to be sure, I’m happy with the result since it’s my first World Cup points of the season finally,” Nordgren wrote in an e-mail. “It’s been a pretty windy week here, and everyone knows what that can do to a competition. I was pretty lucky today, the conditions were never more than I could handle I knew good shooting would move me up with tricky conditions, so I just took my time, took careful shots, and it worked out pretty good.”
Like Burke, Nordgren is on his way back from illness that left him totally depleted after the Olympics. Unlike Burke, he raced the Olympic relay despite still being sick – something that prevented him from recovering very quickly.
“For the rest week in Germany I basically sat on the couch for 7 days straight,” Nordgren wrote. “I think I skied once, and went for a run once. So I came into these races well rested to say the least… back to full speed? No not quite yet, but these races helped my shape, so hopefully the next two weeks I’ll be stronger.”
That seems to be a theme for the U.S. men: stronger.
“It’s pretty positive here for the guys team,” Burke said. “We were happy with our sprint results, it was a good day in the Nations Cup for us. And then today to have all three of us moving up in the race, and Leif getting his first points of the year, it’s definitely a good atmosphere here and hopefully we can keep rolling.”
Having had a somewhat disappointing time at the Olympics, Burke is looking to finish off his season strong. Bailey is now ranked 20th in the World Cup and Burke 25th, and they sense that more is out there for them. That starts tomorrow, when both will compete in the 15 k mass start.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Bailey said. “I love the courses here. Especially the 3 k course, I really like it because you have a lot of gradual climbing and stuff where I think both Tim and I, that’s where our strength lies, the gradual terrain. So I really like this 3 k course.”
And the rest of the season? By the way things have gone in Pokljuka so far, it could be a good ending to 2014 for team USA.
“For sure it’s an opportunity,” Burke said. “Always after an Olympics, it’s probably the most relaxed World Cups you see during the four year cycle. But they still give the same amount of World Cup points for a win, the prize money is still the same and everything. We’re definitely taking it very seriously.”
Brendan Green led the Canadian team in 26th, and Nathan Smith placed 36th.
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.