Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Nathan Smith.
Tim Burke knows you have to get a little weak in the knees to achieve the performance of a lifetime. Or something like that.
Friday’s IBU World Cup 10-kilometer sprint in Hochfilzen, Austria, wasn’t exactly that race for the U.S. biathlete — he’s had plenty of top 10s and top 15s in his career — but it was headed in that direction.
“One of my big goals this year is to really try to attack every race and give myself the best chance I can to get on the podium,” Burke said on the phone after Friday’s race.
As the seventh starter of 105 men on an unusual 2.5 k loop (shorter because of Hochfilzen’s lack of snow; racers had to ski two uninterrupted loops between the first and second stages), Burke started fast and tried to hold it the pace throughout the three-lap race.
He ended up cleaning prone and hitting every target but his last in standing.
That was the one he wanted back — but he also acknowledged that he pushed himself to the brink.
“I came into that last stage really gassed; I definitely went all out after the start,” Burke said.
After organizers trucked in snow to hold the races, conditions were fast and solid on a just-above freezing, sunny afternoon. According to Burke, he experienced good conditions and no wind during his race. It was just a matter of fatigue when it came to the last stage.
“After the third and fourth shot, I was starting to shake a little bit and couldn’t really hold it together for that last shot,” he said. “I feel like right now in men’s biathlon, it’s so competitive that there are always a bunch [of guys] who are going to take a gamble, and I realize that to get the podium now, I really need to get right to the edge and sometimes over the edge, and that’s the way I want to start every race.”
That’s also the way he finished it. Glad to have just 2.5 k to go on his last lap, Burke crossed the line in Burke fourth. He would eventually end up 13th.
“Even after the miss, I still thought I could be up there in the top-ten today,” he said. “Normally at this range, you see a lot of penalties because it’s a challenging approach to the range.”
After the start, racers headed straight down into the valley before turning around for a long grind back to the top. Burke said that type of “gradual climbing” was what suited him best. To his surprise, several others hit most of their targets as well. The top four — Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, Germany’s Simon Schempp and Andreas Birnbacher, and Austria’s Dominik Landertinger, respectively — all cleaned.
At the end of the day, Burke knew his one miss probably cost him the podium, but he continued to focus on the positives and was pleased he took the risk. His course time ranked ninth-fastest overall.
“I’m really happy with my ski speed right now; I think it’s probably my strongest start ski-speed wise that I’ve ever had,” he said.
Burke finished 39.6 seconds behind Bø, who took the lead from fellow Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen, who started second, after starting 13th and quickly cleaning prone. Hegle cleaned as well, but missed one standing and gradually fell farther behind the 21-year-old Bø, who notched the fastest course time.
Bø finished in 24:34.9, beating Schempp by 14.3 seconds for the win on Day 1 of the second World Cup of the season. Birnbacher was 17.9 seconds back in third, and Landertinger finished 22.5 seconds after Bø in fourth. He edged Slovenia’s Jakov Fak by 0.4 seconds, and Bø’s older brother, Tarjei, cleaned for sixth (+26.7).
In fact, sixth through eighth place finished with perfect shooting. France’s Martin Fourcade was seventh (+27.8) and Russia’s Dmitriy Malyshko eighth (+29.2). Svendsen, the overall World Cup leader, placed ninth (+30.9) with a single miss.
Friday’s sprint finishes determine the start order and time back for Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit.
“I stayed really close today, only 39 seconds back and I’ll start in a big group of guys,” Burke explained. “It should be an exciting race. I think a lot of guys will be contending for the podium.”
Burke’s teammate Lowell Bailey also landed in the top 20 for the U.S. on Friday, cleaning and tying Bulgaria’s Krasmir Anev for 17th, 57.6 seconds behind the winner.
On Saturday, Bailey, Burke, Leif Nordgren, and Russell Currier will team up — in that order — in the men’s 4×7.5 k relay. “Anything can happen for sure,” Burke said.
Nordgren placed 51st on Friday (+2:19) to qualify for the pursuit, with a single miss in prone. Currier was just outside the top-60 needed to qualify, finishing 61st with three penalties — two prone and one standing.
Nathan Smith led the Canadians in 44th with three misses as well — two prone, one standing, and 1:57 behind the winner. Brendan Green placed 49th with two prone penalties (+2:13.9).
In an email, Smith explained more than half of their team came down with a cold in Östersund.
“I felt tired and on the edge during the travel day Monday. Thankfully I managed to turn things around and feel good again,” he wrote. “My prone just plain did not feel very solid. I fought for the shots but they didn’t come easily. Standing was pretty good but my first shot, which missed, I pulled a little early.”
Smith felt better about his skiing. I felt like today could have been a top-20 ski time but I didn’t quite make it,” he said. “Usually I feel better race to race, so maybe on Sunday I’ll be there.”
In Sunday’s pursuit, he’ll aim for a top 30, and “with an amazing race, perhaps top 20,” he said. “I’m farther back than I’d hoped.”
In an email, Green explained he was frustrated to open with two misses.
“My shots throughout that bout were consistently high but I think that’s something I should be able to work through going into [Saturday],” he wrote. “Standing felt solid with a nice rhythm which I’m happy with.”
Struggling with back pain since the start of the season in Sweden, Green explained that it wasn’t quite 100 percent, but it hadn’t kept him from doing any of his planned workouts this week, either.
“The travel day from Sweden was hard on it but I’ve been able to get daily treatments here which are definitely helping it from getting any worse,” he wrote. “I’m hoping that over Christmas I’ll be able to spend time with my physio and sort things out to a more manageable level again. Hopefully I won’t have too many issues with the rest of the season in the new year.”
As for how he felt skiing on Friday, he wrote that it was “slowly starting to come along. I’m definitely disappointed with my start to the season thus far and with my form, but I know there is the potential there for a lot more and hopefully I will get a glimpse of that soon. The course seemed to hold up fairly well and although we had to ski a double 2.5km loop after prone the race still went by pretty fast.”
In Saturday’s relay, Smith will start for the first time, followed by Green, Marc-André Bédard, and Scott Perras. On Friday, Bedard placed 82nd with three misses (2+1) and Perras was 100th with six penalties (3+3).
“I’ve never been anything but 3rd or 4th leg,” Smith wrote, “so it’s going to be a new experience for sure! I want to tag Brendan off in a position where he can be right in there with the lead pack. A good result right now for where we’re at is top 8.”
“I know we’ll all be focused on doing our job during each leg of the relay and racing to the best we can,” Green wrote. “We’ll see at the end of the day how we stack up against other nations.”
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.