Note: This article has been updated to include quotes from Canadian national-team head coach Matthias Ahrens.
Just a couple steps from the podium on Saturday, the Canadian men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay team was pretty psyched to get flowers — and chocolate, and a “sweet medal,” and cash, according to third-leg Marc-André Bédard.
They had been in the hunt for sixth, which tied each of their career bests in the team event and was worthy of the flower ceremony, since the first leg of Saturday’s IBU World Cup relay in Hochfilzen, Austria.
Temperatures were colder than Friday’s sprint, their skis seemed to be running great, and by the first exchange, the Canadians were well on their way to the top-eight Nathan Smith thought they were capable of on a given day.
Saturday turned out to be especially impressive, Smith explained.
“After yesterday’s disappointing showing for our team in the sprint I was unsure of what to expect today,” Smith wrote in an email, referring to his 44th-place finish, which led the Canadian men in Friday’s 10 k sprint. Teammate Brendan Green was 49th, Bédard placed 82nd and Scott Perras was 100th.
On Saturday, they tagged off in that order.
Smith started first in the 24-team field and found himself drifting toward the back of the pack — farther than he would have liked. After his first shooting, where he had to use three spare rounds, he was 21st, nearly 37 seconds behind Sweden and Italy in the lead. France and Russia hovered a few seconds behind in third and fourth, and the Americans — with Lowell Bailey leading off — ranked ninth, 14.5 seconds back, after Bailey missed one prone.
In an email, Bailey in bib 20 explained he started six rows back, based on the IBU’s new start rules, which he considered “a significant disadvantage for teams with higher bib numbers.”
“I was able to make it up into the top five during the first loop but it was definitely tough starting with bib 20,” he wrote in an email. “I disagree with the change and I think it gives the lower bib numbers an advantage that they didn’t have with the previous format. That being said, I was able to work my way through the field, but it took a lot of effort and I expended a lot of needless energy trying to pass.”
While Bailey was satisfied with his shooting, using one spare on each stage, Smith was stressing over prone.
“I was pretty worried in prone,” Smith wrote. “I’m not sure exactly what went wrong there, but it felt exactly the same as the prone in [Friday’s] sprint. I knew I was feeling good skiing though so I just tried to ski hard and hopefully catch some teams off guard that were skiing in groups.”
By the second stage, the Canadian was up to 12th with a clean bout. He went on to post the fastest course time of his leg on his third-and-final lap.
“I felt strong and tried to make up time on the second half of the course where all the climbing is,” Smith explained. “My last lap felt amazing. I passed a lot of people and it was actually ranked 1st for that leg. I had hoped to put Brendan in a slightly better position, but given 3 extra, I’m pretty happy that the deficit was only 25 seconds.”
Smith tagged Green in seventh, 25.7 behind Friday’s sprint winner, Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway in first — who missed one in prone. France’s Simon Fourcade cleaned to put his team 12 seconds back in second, and Ukraine tagged in third (+14.4) after 10-for-10 shooting from Dmytro Pidruchnyi.
The U.S. slipped to 15th during Bailey’s leg as a result of less-than-ideal skis, second-leg Tim Burke explained.
“I knew right away when I saw Lowell’s race that he was having a problem with skis,” Burke wrote after his team placed 14th overall. “Unfortunately, I did not have time to change my skis and we were using the same grind. The temperature dropped more than we thought at race time and the snow really dried out. We simply ended up on too big of a grind.”
Heading out 56 seconds behind the leaders, Burke remained hopeful that he could pick a few teams off. He ended up using two spares in prone and another in standing.
“I definitely made a mistake in prone when I tried to push the pace a little too much and ended up pulling the last two shots,” he wrote. “After standing I ways able to pick up a few spots on the last loop but we were still far from where we should have been after two legs.”
Meanwhile, Green cleaned both stages for Canada to improve to sixth. He led Italy’s Dominik Windisch, who started a second behind him, on his first lap. The two entered the range together, and despite Windisch using one spare, they left together as well.
“I was able to work off him for my second lap and relax a little bit more in certain areas before standing,” Green explained. “I knew my skiing should be decent if worked with him so I didn’t try and do anything too heroic on course and more just tried to settle into a solid pace.”
After his standing stage, Green was up to sixth, 39 seconds behind Russia’s Timofey Lapshin up front. Lapshin and Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen both cleaned standing to leave the range together, and France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix used one spare to fall slightly off the pace, eight seconds back in third. Windisch missed three and dropped to ninth.
On the long climb back up to the stadium, Svendsen led Beatrix and Lapshin, while Austria’s Simon Eder tried to close the 12-second gap in fourth. Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher trailed by another 12 seconds in fifth — 14.7 seconds ahead of Green.
“I always feel a ton of pressure during relay races,” Green reflected. “But last year we had multiple strong relay performances where we were contending at the front of the race, so I’m sure those experiences helped me out today…
“When setting up the next teammate for the tag, it’s ideal if you can tag them with other nations close by so they have people to work with skiing,” he added. “If that scenario works out, perfect, but if not that’s fine, and we’re always doing our best to tag as close to the lead as possible.”
Green handed off to Bédard in sixth, 50 seconds behind Norway and France, neck-and-neck for first, and 24 seconds behind Germany in fifth. Russia tagged off 7.8 seconds back in third, and the U.S. came through in 11th, 1:55 behind the leaders.
Upon receiving the tag, Bédard — the team’s newest member and the only one not to experience sixth place in the relay in Antholz, Italy, last January (former national-team member J.P. LeGullec scrambled in that race) — he focused on keeping his cool and trying not to lose too much ground.
“It was a bit lonely during the first 2 laps but I tried to go as hard as I could knowing that it would be super short,” Bédard wrote.
He used one spare in prone and three in standing to slip one place to seventh behind Italy’s Thomas Bormolini after his second stage.
“On the final lap I took extra time on the range to clear my targets and the Italian came back strong cleaning his, so I had to fight back 8-10 seconds,” Bédard explained. “I got to him pretty fast. I felt good so I attacked right away but he kept up to me and we ended up together.”
Bédard and Bormolini entered the final exchange at the same time, 1:56.4 behind Russia. After Dmitry Malyshko cleaned, Russia remained the definitive race leader heading into the final leg, more than 17 seconds ahead of Norway’s Lars Helge Birkeland in second. Birkeland used five spares — two in prone and three standing to account for half of Norway’s 10 total spares at the end of the day.
France’s Simon Desthieux, who missed two standing, trailed Birkeland by 0.7 seconds through the tag zone in third.
At the front of the race, it was all about chasing Russia with anchor leg Anton Shipulin ultimately cleaning both stages to bring it home. France’s Martin Fourcade and Norway’s Tarjei Bø duked it out for second, with Fourcade missing one prone and Bø missing three standing to drop to third.
Then there was Austria and Germany, some 35 seconds behind Russia after prone and 48 seconds back after standing, racing for fourth.
“The gaps were quite big when I started,” Canada’s anchor, Perras wrote. “My race was all about getting into the prize ceremony. I couldn’t even see 4th or 5th.”
He missed two prone and three standing for five total spares — half of what Canada ended up with.
“In prone I shot a bit slow. I threw my first spare round down range to try and leave the range with Italy,” Perras explained.
Italy’s Christian Martinelli used one spare in prone to exit the range 15 second ahead of him. Perras made up that time on the second lap and entered the range with him, then reclaimed sixth. While Perras missed three that bout and Martinelli missed two, Perras left the range 22 seconds ahead.
“I had no idea how close Italy was to me or any team for that matter,” Perras explained of his last lap. “I fought the whole way. I was fighting for my teammates out there.”
He secured sixth to match the team’s best from Antholz, finishing 2:55.4 behind Russia, which won in 1:16:14.8 after using just one spare round. Fourcade cleaned standing and outsprinted Bø by 7.7 seconds to lock up silver for France (0+4), 20.2 seconds behind Russia, and Norway took third (0+10).
Dominik Landertinger cleaned prone and used one spare in standing to finish fourth for Austria (0+7), 30.5 behind Russia, and Germany’s Simon Schempp also cleaned the first stage then missed one standing to finish 0.9 seconds later in fifth for his team (0+9).
“Matching a top finish is always a must, we obviously want to get better and better,” Bédard wrote. “But it was great to be [in] the flower ceremony.”
“I think we are happy to get back there so early in the year,” Perras explained. “It sets the bar for the whole team. It makes everyone want to work harder, coaches, wax techs and athletes to repeat or better days like today.”
While the Canadian men ended the day with zero penalties and 10 spares, the Americans, which were lapped during Russell Currier’s anchor leg, ended up with four penalties and 14 spares.
After Burke tagged Leif Nordgren in 11th, Nordgren used three spares and had to ski a penalty loop on his first stage, then slipped to 12th. In standing, he used all three spares again and had three more penalty loops to leave the range in 17th.
He tagged Currier in 17th, nearly five minutes behind the leaders. Currier went on to use two spares in prone and one in standing before being pulled on his last lap.
“We are not reading too much into this result as a team,” Burke wrote. “We know we are far better than what we showed today. In one way, at least everything went wrong for us on the same day.”
“I think we are capable of a podium,” Bailey noted. “The field is incredibly strong on the men’s side this year and a few small mistakes make a big difference on the results list. If we are perfect, we have a chance at the podium.
“Tomorrow is a new day,” he added. On Sunday, Burke and Bailey will start 13th and 17th, respectively in the pursuit. Nordgren, who also qualified, will head out 51st of 60 men.
Smith and Green will also be hunting for a top 30 after starting in 44th and 49th, respectively.
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.