You know that something’s wrong when you go into a race hoping for some luck with factors operating beyond your control.
That’s exactly how Tim Burke, a top U.S. biathlete, approached Saturday’s World Cup sprint in Oberhof, Germany. Oberhof is a challenging venue, with many aspects that each and every competitor must face: steep hills. Fog. Rain and snow. Icy corners where you might break a ski, pole, or binding, or get a bloody nose, but hopefully not break any bones.
There’s one factor, though, that’s a lottery. That’s the wind, which had extreme gusts today, but also calmed down briefly at times, long enough for whoever was on the range to get one or two or, if they were lucky, maybe five clean shots off.
“It was definitely one of the crazier, maybe the craziest, biathlon races I’ve ever done,” Burke said in a phone interview. “Really strong wind gusts, really challenging skiing on a mix of ice and slush, yeah. It was a tough day. Just one of those days that I think you just hope you get lucky, and you go out there and roll the dice.”
The U.S. did not enter a team in Thursday’s relay, but Burke had watched both the men’s and women’s relays and the women’s sprint on Friday. And he had trained in Oberhof all week. He “knew what [he] was in for,” he said.
And yet it didn’t seem to take much of the sting off: in standing he had three penalties, and didn’t think he possibly could have hit more than that.
Teammate Lowell Bailey had three total penalties and was the top North American finisher in 34th place.
“Prone went well but I struggled in standing,” he said in a USBA press release. “I did get a few big gusts of wind, but I think I should have hit at least one more target.”
Canada’s Nathan Smith also faced a windy prone stage, and also had three penalties. He said that if he had focused more, he thought he possibly could have hit one more target, but no more than that.
“If they wanted a fair race, there’s no way it would start today,” Burke said. “But they have all the spectators there, they have the TV, nowadays in order to call off a race for conditions like that it has to be actually dangerous. Like trees falling on the trail, for them to call it.”
He finished 42nd, a minute and 56 seconds behind Martin Fourcade of France, who escaped with a single penalty.
Indidentally: Fourcade was not impressed with conditions either.
“I think we have to imagine another solution with Oberhof,” he said in a press conference. “I don’t mean about canceling, because Oberhof is a wonderful World Cup stage, but perhaps to move in another period of the year. But we have to do something, in my seven times in Oberhof and like I say today it was perhaps the best conditions I had, and this is not a joke.”
More than not a joke, Burke said it was unfair.
“It was absolutely not a fair race,” he asserted. “I think everyone would agree on that.”
Athletes had different strategies for dealing with the wind. Burke took his time when it was windy, to try to ensure hits.
“My prone stage I would say it was doable,” he explained. “I really took my time shot-to-shot and got out of there with one penalty, which I was pretty happy with… I was hoping for some luck in standing, and I thought I had it. It was really windy as I was coming in and then it totally died as I set up. I got off two quick hits before it started blowing like crazy. I stood there for a long time trying to hit, but I had no chance. I missed all three shots.”
Smith, by contrast, had the second-fastest range times of the entire field.
“In prone for sure, I wanted to be aggressive because in training it has been pretty windy too and I found the wind was not affecting me too much in prone,” he said. “But in standing- yeah, I still had a really fast shooting time compared to the field. I don’t know, it felt like I went a bit slower, like maybe one second slower than normal. It is hard to slow down sometimes. I could definitely take that away from this race to be a little more disciplined when conditions are like this. I don’t know, maybe I could have taken five more seconds shooting if I had hit one more target.”
Fair or unfair, shooting penalties particularly harmed him and Smith. Both came into the weekend ranked in the top 25, meaning that they were guaranteed spots in the 30-man mass start scheduled for Sunday (the remaining five spots go to the next best five athletes of the specific weekend, not of the whole season).
But after Burke failed to score World Cup points in the sprint, he slipped to 26th. Luckily for him, Tarjei Bø of Norway is not competing, bumping Burke up to number 25 in the list of athletes who are actually in Oberhof.
“I snuck into the mass start,” Burke said. “That’s not how I want to make mass starts, but I’ll take it. At least tomorrow, for the most part, everyone has to shoot at the same time, so the wind factor affects everyone the same way.”
He and Bailey, who is currently ranked 23rd in the world, will compete in the mass start with, Burke hoped, better weather – but he wasn’t holding his breath.
Smith wasn’t so lucky, and is the second alternate for the mass start competition in case anyone drops out before race start.
“No, I’m not disappointed,” Smith said of losing his ranking. “I knew it would be tough to stay in the top-25. I would have to have really good races. Today was like a mediocre race, I don’t know, I think my skiing is not the best I have had yet this year, but it is pretty good, I’m pretty happy with it considering I just traveled over here. I am petty optimistic for next weekend in Ruhpolding.”
While only Bailey and Burke competed for the U.S., Canada had a stable of IBU Cup racers on the start line. And they came through like World Cup pros: Christian Gow, in his first World Cup weekend ever, finished 48th with two penalties; 2010 Olympian Marco Bedard was one spot behind him; and Macx Davies placed 54th with three penalties.
“[Christian and Macx] are pretty new at it so they are definitely excited,” Smith said. “They are a little more energetic than us old folks I guess, but yeah it is kind of fun to have them around. It definitely a difference from the usual group. And definitely super good results. I don’t think they overly happy with it, but I think they should be happier than they are maybe, World Cups really hard to do well on. I certainly didn’t do that well in my first World Cup.”
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.