Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Lowell Bailey and Brendan Green.
An athlete would be lying if they said they didn’t want their first race of the season to be a breeze, and for just about everyone but Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen on Wednesday in the first IBU World Cup individual race of the season — it wasn’t.
Svendsen remained the only perfect shooter out of 100 finishers, and topped the men’s 20-kilometer in Östersund, Sweden, in 53:25.6 — more than a minute and 17 seconds faster than anyone else.
The next three finishers came out with one penalty apiece (Ukraine’s Serhiy Semenov in second, Michal Slesingr of the Czech Republic in third, and Germany’s Erik Lesser in fourth), but the shooting after that was all over the map. It usually is, but it was even more so on Wednesday, no thanks to various high winds cutting across the range.
American Tim Burke, who started 39th of 102, hung consistently in the top 10 throughout the race despite missing one on each of the first three stages.
Teammate Lowell Bailey started before him in bib 15 on a 6-degree Celsius (43 Fahrenheit) afternoon. Bailey cleaned his first and third stages, missing just one on the first standing, to put himself in sixth his third time leaving the range.
Burke went on to clean his final standing for 17-for-20 shooting, just like Bailey, who ended up missing two on the last stage. Not long after their finish, the two men sat in 10th and 17th, respectively, only to be bumped by a few late starters.
One of them was 22-year-old Frenchman Quentin Fillon Maillet, who tallied a career best in 10th. After starting 98th, he knocked Burke from 10th to 11th, 3:32.8 behind Svendsen, a position Burke was satisfied with despite three minutes of penalties.
“I was pleased with my shooting today considering it was tricky with the wind,” Burke wrote in an email. “Normally 3 penalties in an Individual would not be good enough for 11th place but there were a lot of penalties because of the conditions.”
Bailey slid slightly to 20th (+4:50) behind Fillon, Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov in 18th and Italy’s Thomas Bormolini in 19th.
“It was challenging, for sure,” Bailey said of the conditions, according to a US Biathlon press release. “The weather warmed up quite a bit before the race which made for some pretty icy, mushy downhills and the track deteriorated pretty quickly. And the added wind made it even more challenging on the range.”
At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Bailey placed eighth in the same event and appeared to be in contention for another top 10 on Wednesday until the final stage. He spent nearly a minute in the range, almost longer than anyone else on that stage, waiting for the wind to calm.
“It was pretty windy in the final stage and I made the decision to stay and wait out the gusts to try and hit as many shots as possible,” Bailey explained in an email. “I waited an extra fifteen seconds for that last shot because I really wanted to hit it. Unfortunately, I not only waited extra time, but then I missed the shot! That’s biathlon though. I wasn’t really that nervous but I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get out of the final shooting with one less miss.
“I was excited for today’s race as it is the first time to see where your fitness level is compared to the rest of the international field,” he added. “A lot can change over the course of the year, but it is always good to start off with a solid result to get things going. … I’m hoping for increased ski speed as the season progresses. It’s a good place to start though.”
Burke, who skied the eighth- and ninth-fastest course times on the last two loops (for the eighth-fastest course time overall), explained his racing form felt “pretty solid” throughout the race.
“The hardest part for me was actually the first two loops,” he wrote. “I felt that I struggled a little in the fist two loops with my technique. I have not had so many hard efforts on snow yet, so I am definitely still fine tuning my technique. By the last few laps I felt like I nailed down my ski placement and timing.”
After helping his team achieve one of their best results of seventh in Sunday’s mixed relay, Burke took an easy day of training followed by some light speed on Tuesday.
“I felt good during my speed the day before so I expected to feel strong for the Individual,” he wrote. “This year I experimented with a few new training ideas. Starting in October, I started feel better than ever in some of my intense training sessions but you never really know how that feeling will stack up in a World Cup. [Wednesday] was a good indicator for me that my new training ideas have worked well but it is also still very early in the season.”
Also for the U.S., Leif Nordgren placed 71st with four penalties (0+2+1+1) and 9:47.7 back from the winner. Russell Currier was another 13.2 seconds back in 74th, with seven misses (3+1+3+0).
Canada Outside Top 40
Brendan Green was the top Canadian in 49th (+7:23.5) after starting 30th and falling out of contention early with four penalties in the first two stages (2+2+0+0). Nathan Smith, who started eighth, ended up 54th with seven misses (1+3+1+2).
“It was a pretty frustrating day, both for myself and the team,” Green wrote in an email. “The wind in general was quite strong and also inconsistent which made the shooting tough. I did what I could to try and hit each shot with the wind I was dealt but unfortunately that still resulted in 4 misses after my first two bouts of shooting.
“I had an idea from what I could hear and see each time I was in the stadium that there were a lot of misses amongst the field, even with the top names, so I knew it was that kind of day,” he added. “I was able to manage the wind better for my last two bouts and fortunately was able to finish the day without any more misses.”
Green explained he’s been struggling with back problems since arriving in Östersund, and that led him to skip the mixed relay. Since then, he explained the problem seemed to have settled and he was looking forward to the individual.
“I typically should be able to ski fairly well on a course like here in Ostersund but during the race I felt like I was hanging on for survival as opposed to skiing an aggressive 20km,” he wrote. “I think we had some issues with the skis as well.
“Although I’m disappointed with my opening race and expected a lot more from myself, training has been going well and I’m looking forward to this weekend,” Green added. “After returning to the World Cup circuit last year I was really unsure what to expect and how my body and mind would hold out after a year off, but I proved to myself that I am still capable of solid results and am looking to build off of where I left off last season. Hopefully my strongest results and best shape will be in Finland for the World Championships.”
Smith explained that his first standing, where he missed three, was a bit windy, but that didn’t excuse three penalties.
“I’m not sure what exactly happened there but it definitely threw me off for the remaining shooting stages,” he wrote. “Prone actually felt really solid but I just made a couple silly mistakes by rushing a little.
“The course wasn’t perfect by any means, but the warm temperatures actually did help the snow conditions compared to previous days when it was colder,” he added. “A couple of the hills near the stadium were getting chopped up but thankfully the largest climbs were still in excellent condition.”
Some of these climbs, however, greeted competitors with strong headwinds. And while the course held up well overall, Smith explained there was some deterioration, especially on some of the shorter uphills.
With his initial goal of a top 16 out by the second shooting, he tried to put together a decent race by cleaning the final two stages.
“Unfortunately that did not happen. Once I was stuck with the bad shooting I didn’t really have any expectations and just focused on skiing relaxed and smooth,” he wrote. “It’s often tougher to push 100% when you know you’re out of the running because of poor shooting. Even still I’m satisfied with my skiing form.”
At the end of the day, he had the 21st-fastest course time overall.
“Although I only felt average out there, my course time was still quite good,” Smith wrote. “So hopefully on a day where I feel amazing I can be right up in the top 10. I’m going to refocus my shooting and perhaps be a little more cautious in Saturday’s sprint.”
Marc-André Bédard finished 61st with four penalties (0+1+1+2) and 8:40.6 behind the winner.
Despite earning his spot on the World Cup team as early as a few weeks ago (and buying his plane tickets late), Bédard explained he was relieved to get to Sweden after some quality on-snow time in Quebec City.
“I did not expect to be in great shape and to shoot that well because I had such a crazy summer racing off road triathlons and OCRs but I knew I was going to give it my best and enjoy every moments, which I did!” he wrote in an email of the World Cup team trials Nov. 13-14 in Canmore, Alberta.
Waking up Wednesday morning, he recalled feeling happy and thankful for the individual start after racing to 17th with the team on Sunday.
“These trails are a lot like home too and I love to ski here so I was exited to race new tracks that I feel good in,” he wrote. “I wasn’t to sure how to approach it and if I was going to survive it so I started really conservative, skiing with others and picking up the speed more and more.”
Looking at his results, Bédard figured he should have pushed his pace more. He started 86th, which didn’t leave him with optimal conditions, but he was used to it.
“I’ve always started later being on fewer [World Cups] and I’d say 9/10 races it’s almost a handicap to start late,” he wrote.
Not only is it harder to warm up and adjust the rifle, late starters also have to wait often more than an hour before their turn. The lighting, wind and the snow conditions often change in this time, and Bédard explained that makes the wax technicians’ jobs tougher — especially in 6-degree temperatures — after they test skis two hours before a race.
“You have to give it your best and hope it doesn’t affect you too, too much!” he wrote. “I didn’t go in with much of any goals, I have so little information on my shape and speed this year that I just took it as it goes and try to learn and improve from there. My shooting has been amazing so I was exited about this and looking forward to a 90%+ performance, which I was doing great before the end but I ended up missing my last 2 shots which put a stop to the party! But I’m still quite happy with a 80% for pretty hard shooting conditions.”
Canada’s fourth man, Scott Perras placed 73rd (+9:51) with six penalties (1+3+1+1).
The women’s 15 k individual kicks off Thursday at 17:15 CET (11:15 a.m. EST).
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.