North American men had their moments in the 12.5 k World Cup pursuit in Kontiolahti, Finland. But biathlon giveth and biathlon taketh away, especially when it’s as windy as it was in Kontiolahti today. And so at the end of the race, Nathan Smith of Canada landed in tenth and Lowell Bailey of the United States in 14th.
Bailey started in third, 19 seconds behind leader Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway, after hitting the World Cup podium for the first time in Saturday’s sprint. On a normal day, Bailey would have had a great chance at repeating the podium.
“I just looked at it as instead of going out in tenth place or 15th or 30th, I was going in third place, which just meant that I had that much better of a chance and that much more of an advantage in today’s race,” said Bailey, who has three previous top-ten finishes in this race format. “I tried to ski my own race and tried to ski smart. I was really happy with my ski speed today.”
But he missed two shots right off the bat – in a day of wind gusts, some happened to swing through the range while he was in his first prone stage.
“In biathlon everything changes from day to day,” Bailey laughed on the phone. “So today it was gale force winds. It was a little bit of a lottery. I was prepared for the wind, but you know, it was just really strong winds, especially in the first prone and the last standing.”
That dropped him to 13th place. Instead, it was Smith who climbed his way toward the top. The Canadian had started just over 30 seconds behind Bø and after cleaning his first stage he found himself in second place.
“After the first prone I was really surprised when I jumped off the mat that I was actually in 2nd. It felt a little surreal,” Smith wrote in an e-mail.
But he wasn’t safe either. In the second stage, he missed two shots, and dropped to sixth. Two more misses in the first standing dropped him to 13th. After a single penalty in the last stage he was back in sixth, but was unable to hang on during the last loop of skiing.
“I fought hard on the last lap but didn’t have the same snap or finishing kick as yesterday so I got passed by a train on the last steep climb,” Smith wrote.
In the meantime, Bailey had climbed up to sixth by the third stage, but then collected two penalties to finish things out.
“I honestly feel like I was pretty lucky to get out of the last standing with only two misses because I was getting blown from one side of the targets to the other,” he explained. “I was seeing all five targets back and forth with my sights.”
The attitude of both athletes seemed to be, well, that’s life – and to finish in the top ten or 15 was still pretty good.
“It’s pretty hard to believe I could stay top 10 with 5 misses,” Smith wrote. “And the winner missed 4 on his last standing! Shooting is still feeling sharp for myself, it was solid in the sprints. Sometimes it’s just not physically possible to hold the sights on target in gusty unpredictable wind. You just have to take your chances and hope for the best instead of wasting time waiting for a break in the wind that may never come.”
Bailey’s five penalties would usually be considered a lot, but nobody in the U.S. camp seemed to upset about it.
“It’s hard to judge how the athletes coped with the opportunities to reach a top result mentally,” U.S. coach Per Nilsson wrote in an e-mail. “Today was more a matter how to handle another part that you cannot control, the gusty winds. In the results you had much more misses and longer shooting times also. Both Lowell and Susan [Dunklee] did not shoot better than the people in front of them…. but I don’t know if you this time can blame it on them.”
And while Bailey acknowledged how ridiculous conditions were on the range, Bailey didn’t want to make excuses, either.
“You know, there were some good performances out there by a lot of the other guys,” he said.
Despite the potential that was there with a third-place starting position, he felt like he did the best he could given the situation.
“It was a good race,” said Bailey. “I’m not disappointed. I obviously hoped for more, but I ended up only 45 seconds back, so I only lost a little more than 20 seconds to the leader. So it just happened that it was 14th place, but that was the result. I’m really happy with 45 seconds back. I’m just overall pretty satisfied and psyched with the weekend and the week.”
Smith, too, was pleased.
“This summer I never would’ve imagined being able to have so many top finishes,” he said of a season where he has collected three top-10s and the best 12 results of his career. “Somehow my small changes in training just clicked. Last year I was always in the 70s, with my best race being only 55th. My consistency this year has given me a lot of motivation for the coming training year. I feel that a medal within 1-2 years is possible if everything comes together perfectly on the right day. Lowell is a perfect example.”
“Overall he has had a very consistent good performance for the whole season which in the past years he had been struggling to maintain,” Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens said of Smith.
And what about the guy he was referencing – Bailey?
The American said that it has been something of a dream weekend in Finland.
“It was kind of the race that I had been preparing for for the last three years,” he said. “I felt like I had the skills and the level to get a podium on the World Cup for the last three years, and I just hadn’t been able to do it. I had come close a bunch of times, so to get it, it was just really nice. I had a mix of emotions, obviously excitement, but also some relief that believing in myself and all the other people along the way who had believed in me, that it was actually true.”
Bailey says that he feels good and hopes he can continue this level of performance at the last weekend of World Cup racing in Oslo, Norway, next weekend.
Nilsson thinks it’s possible – and that being unable to capitalize on today’s good starting position shouldn’t hurt him too much.
“I think Lowell had a good race today from the ski tactic side, “Nilsson wrote. “[And the] last lap was strong. I think that it’s easier for Lowell this time to move on to next race. If it would have been zero wind and he had missed two in first stage, he would have been pretty upset.”
Bailey’s teammate Tim Burke skied a steady race, taking four penalties to move from 19th up to 17th. Leif Nordgren dropped from 27th to 34th.
For Canada, Brendan Green moved from 28th up to 20th with three penalties.and Scott Gow, in his first World Cup races of the season, went from 42nd to 43rd.
“Of course Scott had to deal initially with jet lag again and given that he had not been racing for a few weeks had to adapt to the World Cup pace again,” Canadian coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an e-mail. “In Oslo I hope he can race into points, he was already close here.”
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.