KONTIOLAHTI, Finland — All four North American men in Sunday’s 15-kilometer mass start had moments from 2015 IBU World Championships they could hold onto, high points of the last week and a half they could drum up and replay in their minds.
Some were fresher than others. For American Lowell Bailey, it was cleaning every stage after a single miss on his first prone of the mass start, leading a chase group behind the leaders then tagging on to the main pack and finishing 35 seconds behind the winner in 13th — his best result of these World Championships.
For his teammate, Tim Burke, who finished 10.6 seconds behind him in 14th, it was racing hard on his second lap to catch the leaders, then hanging in and beating out Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, who racked up two silver medals over the last week, in a photo finish. It was also Burke’s best result of the 2015 championships.
Canada’s Brendan Green experienced the sensations of skiing fifth on his second-to-last lap of the mass start after cleaning all three stages leading up to that point. While he fell behind over the next 2.5 k and missed one of his shots in the final standing for 19-for-20 shooting, that kind of shooting was still something he could be proud of. He also tallied his third 21st place in four individual races at worlds, and he placed 16th in the pursuit.
And his teammate, Nathan Smith had the physical evidence of a silver medal to remind him what he accomplished eight days earlier.
“It would be nice to have another race close to that level,” the 29-year-old Smith said after placing 23rd in the mass start with three penalties, two of which came in the first prone. He finished 1:19.4 behind Slovenia’s Jakov Fak, who won in 36:24.9.
On March 7, Smith became the first Canadian male biathlete to medal at World Championships. The next day, he placed 13th in the pursuit, and on Thursday, finished 44th in the 20 k individual. On Saturday, he hit all 10 of his targets as the second leg of the men’s relay to lift the Canadians from 22nd to 10th. They ended up 19th.
“I’d say my relay was close to that level, but I’m still pretty happy with how world champs went,” Smith said. “Before this, my best race ever at world champs was [43rd in 2012] so all my races have been better than that.”
Bailey put himself in contention for what looked like a possible top 10 heading into his last lap on Sunday. After a single prone penalty put him back in 23rd, 26.4 seconds out of the lead, he rose to 11th after the last shooting without another miss all race.
“I was happy with my mental game today,” Bailey said. “I was able to stay with it and even in the last standing, while I was shooting, it was just, ‘I’m here, I’m shooting and I’m trying to do what I know how to do. The race is whatever it’ll be.’ ”
After the first prone, Bailey, Burke and Smith all slipped outside the top 20 with at least one miss (Smith had two). The top 20 men out of that stage cleaned, including Green in 16th.
“It’s a tough way to start off a mass start because that group of clean guys leaves and you’re left kind of at the back of the pack,” Bailey explained. “I just tried to regroup. I knew that it’s only one penalty, it’s a four-stage race, so I really just tried to … pace myself and stay in it so I had a little bit left on the last loop, which was good to have.”
Within 25 seconds of Norwegian race leader Ole Einar Bjørndalen heading into the last lap, Bailey initially dropped to 13th when Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev and Svendsen passed him. He passed Svendsen back after the steepest climb and nearly caught Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström, finishing 0.3 seconds behind him in 13th.
“I’m happy, top 15 at world champs, it’s where I wanted to be,” Bailey, 33, said after his ninth World Championships. “This week’s been kind of up and down. I’m happy with my shooting and the relays [with eighth place in the mixed relay] were solid. Overall, there was no fireworks, but it was a solid week for me, especially considering where I came from. I wasn’t even in the points [at the World Cup] in Oslo. I was sick for the other World Cup before that.”
Burke, also 33 and in his ninth World Championships, was pleased with his second individual top 15 and third top 20 over the past eight days in Kontiolahti.
He explained he had to reset after Saturday’s relay, in which he used four spares and skied two penalty loops on the third leg to drop from eighth to 15th.
“It was tough to regroup after that,” Burke said. “I felt bad for the other guys because they did a great job, but I just wanted to refocus and try to have a solid race here today.”
Before the mass start, he decided he was going to take his time shooting and go back to the basics.
“I knew I was going to give away time on the shooting range, but I didn’t care,” Burke said. “Just try to go for each shot, one shot to the next. I felt a lot more comfortable doing that, and that combined with really good skiing today, I was very happy with how I felt. I was able to attack a lot.”
After an early prone penalty put him back in 26th, 32.1 seconds out of first, Burke pushed hard on his second lap to catch the 24-man lead pack and came into the range within 13 seconds of Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø up front.
“I just went out aggressive on the loop and halfway through, I realized that front group was taking it easy,” Burke recalled. “I saw I had an opportunity to catch back up, and any time you can do that, you have to do it.
“I definitely burned some matches on that second loop catching up,” he added. “Luckily, I shot clean in the second prone so I was able to get back in the group and take a breather for a loop.”
While taking it easy within the lead pack doesn’t usually happen, but Burke explained this race was unique.
“It was pretty crazy, the front group was just not going fast,” he said. “No one wanted to lead. There were 20 guys that came into the last shooting. I’ve never seen that.”
Out of the final stage, Bjørndalen emerged 1.6 seconds ahead in first, having cleaned all four stages. Fellow Norwegian Tarjei Bø cleaned the last shooting to head out in second, and Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic left the range in third, 3.4 seconds back. Also with a clean final standing, Fak was the fourth man to join that group, 4.1 seconds after Bjørndalen.
While the frontrunners battled for three podium spots, there was a 10-second gap to Germany’s Simon Schempp, who cleaned the last stage to move into fifth. France’s Simon Fourcade, Svendsen and Garanichev each missed one to fall back in the standings, from second to sixth for Fourcade, and 12th and 13th for Svendsen and Garanichev, respectively.
That’s where Bailey found himself in 11th, and Burke was 37.5 seconds back in 17th after two more penalties, one on each standing stage. Burke skied the sixth-fastest course time overall to finish 14th, just ahead of Svendsen in 15th and one-tenth of a second ahead of Germany’s Benedikt Doll in 16th.
“Overall, solid,” Burke said of his World Championships. “It’s better than what I’ve done so far this year so I have to be happy with that, but it’s not what I’m here for. It’s not what I think I’m capable of, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
With three flawless shooting stages, Green started his penultimate lap in fifth, 13.6 seconds behind Simon Fourcade, the leader at the time, and 6.4 seconds behind Moravec in fourth.
“That was pretty fun,” Green said of the race overall. “It was unreal how tight it was. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a mass start quite like that. It was fun to be in the mix. The skiing still isn’t quite there, but the saving grace was being in the pack of guys. I think that enabled me to dig a bit deeper and hurt a bit more.”
While skiing alone in fifth, the 28-year-old Canadian said the pace picked up considerably on that lap, which he expected. On the climb known as the “wall,” Green was 16 seconds back in 13th, just ahead of Burke.
“Lower down on the course I got caught by a group,” Green said. “I was able to kind of stay with them, but it was so tight. There was a big group of guys and I don’t think anything was really decided until that last standing.”
There, he missed one and dropped to 19th, 43.5 seconds out of the lead. Green finished 21st, 1:08.3 after the winner.
“I gave it my best today and it was working out pretty good until the last standing,” he said. “I have to be happy with the shooting today. It was a good race and it’s more experience under my belt for the future.
“All in all for the championships, I’m pretty happy with how I did,” Green added. “I wish my preparation could’ve been better and more as planned, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Leading into the championships, Green had to rehab a back injury and spent some time away from skiing.
“Hopefully next year my form is a little better and I can keep the same shooting and improve upon these results,” he said.
Fak Finally Gets His
As predicted, the race came down to the final shooting, and really, the last lap, where Fak took control. Without wasting much time, the Slovenian made a point to get in front of Moravec and the Norwegians, and by the top of the wall, he had successfully gapped Bjørndalen and Tarjei Bø.
“After the shooting, I saw that Ole Einar was in front of me,” Bø recalled in a press conference. “I turned around and saw these two guys [Moravec and Fak] and I knew the medals would be delivered out to three of the four. I was trying to go for the gold medal. Jakov increased the speed in the second last of the uphills. I tried to follow him and I did it almost as good as I was planning to, but in the last hill, he and Ondrej were too strong for me and Ole … there was no energy left.”
Moravec held on, but barely.
“I know how fast he is,” the Czech said of Fak, whom he has trained with for several summers. “He take a little bit advantage on the last uphill, so I say, ‘OK, you win,’ but I believe that I can take some medal in the end.”
The two sprinted toward the finish together, and Fak outlasted Moravec by a 1 second for his first medal of the week and second World Championships title.
“It was a very hard World Championships for me,” Fak explained in the conference. “When you look at the competition schedule before the World Championships, you see a lot of races, then when you are not satisfied with your competitions, you have less and less chance every day.
“Today was the last day,” he continued. “When I was standing on the start, I saw all the medal winners before me. I was the first with the number without the medal and I wanted to get it so much.”
He earned it ahead of not only Moravec, but also Bø, who medaled in five out of six races at 2015 worlds (excluding the 20 k individual). Bø finished 3.7 seconds back in third for his fourth bronze of the week. He also earned silver with the men’s relay on Friday.
“In both Khanty-Mansiysk and Nove Mesto [World Championships], I took individual gold medal. I like that color better,” said Bø, a four-time world champion between 2011 and 2013. “But still with five medals, even if it’s not a gold medal, I’m so happy. It was a strange winter and even here, I’m not skiing as good as I’m hoping to do, but my shooting has been incredible.”
Fak, Moravec and Bø all shot 19-for-20, with Fak missing one in the third stage, Moravec missing one in the first prone, and Bø missing one in the third stage as well. Bjørndalen cleaned and ended up fourth, 10.2 seconds after Fak and 6.5 seconds off the podium.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.