In a race affected by difficult conditions on the course and shooting range, Italy’s Dominik Windisch achieved the first victory and podium of his career in the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup men’s 15-kilometer mass start on Saturday in Canmore, Alberta. In third place after the final shooting stage and despite four penalties in total, the 26-year-old Windisch finished first with a time of 40:37.1 minutes, after a strong last loop.
“It was amazing. I can’t believe it yet. A dream came true for me today,” Windisch said during the post-race press conference.
Asked how long he has been waiting for this moment, Windisch later told the IBU: “I think for over 20 years, since I was a child watching competitions of the World Cup in Antholz [Italy].”
Second place went to Germany’s Benedikt Doll, 4.1 seconds back with four penalties, for the third podium of his career. Doll also moved up on the final loop thanks to the fastest course time of all athletes. France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet, who led the pack after the last shooting, fell behind on the final loop and ended up third, 8.6 seconds after the Italian, with three penalties.
‘He puked all over my skis’
U.S. Biathlon’s Tim Burke had the best day of the three North Americans in the race, finishing seventh, 23.8 seconds after Windisch with three penalties, and just 1.5 seconds behind the overall World Cup leader, Martin Fourcade of France.
It was Burke’s best result of the season in an individual race so far, and he last achieved seventh in a 2014 mass start in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
Burke raced under the watchful eye of his wife, Andrea Burke (formerly Henkel), an Olympic and World Championships gold medalist for the German biathlon team, who provided commentary and analysis with Chad Salmela for the IBU’s live stream of the North American World Cups.
“When your wife is commentating live it puts a little extra pressure on…,“ Burke said in a post-race phone interview with FasterSkier. “I think she’s having a lot of fun with it. It’s for sure a challenge to commentate in not your first language.”
Burke said the first prone shooting was the “trickiest stage” on Saturday, but he managed to keep the damage in check with just one penalty.
“It [was] changing so much shot to shot that I didn’t crack down my shots at all,” he said. “I would aim [left] off the target knowing that the wind would blow [really strong left to right]. I missed my first shot and I realized I wasn’t aiming far enough off.”
He left the range in 15th place, 41.8 seconds behind Austria’s Simon Eder in first, but still with several other athletes who had also missed at least one target.
“As I was skiing out of the range, just checking the targets, I could see there were quite a few mistakes. I knew that would keep me in the race,” Burke recalled.
In the second prone stage, Burke shot clean.
“It was really good conditions. The wind was down. It was a lot like I had zeroed for,” he said. “I hadn’t changed my sights at all so I was able to aim through and shoot fast.”
One lap later, the wind picked up for the third shooting (first standing stage).
“I just really took my time and was very happy to get out of there with one penalty. … When I left the range everyone except I think one person was in the penalty loop.”
He left the range in fourth, 17.5 seconds behind Fillon Maillet, 6.3 seconds after Latvia’s Andrejs Rastorgujevs in second, and 2.4 seconds behind Austria’s Dominik Landertinger in third.
Burke lost a few positions on the course, skiing in a group led by eventual third-place finisher Doll.
“At that point, I knew the win was still possible just because the conditions were changing so fast,” Burke said. “Anything is possible in a race like that.”
In the last shooting stage, Burke recorded another miss, skied a penalty loop and headed into the final loop in ninth place with competitive company around him: Fourcade, Landertinger, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic, Slovakia’s Matej Kazar (the best shooter on Saturday with just one penalty), and Germany’s Arnd Peiffer.
“It’s not the best group to head out on the last loop with, so I knew it was going to be tough, but I hung in there,“ Burke said. “Fourcade and Landertinger got a gap with about a [kilometer] and a half to go. Then it was me and Peiffer … he was in front of me and unfortunately puked all over my skis.”
He estimated Peiffer got sick with about half a kilometer remaining in the, heading into one of the final climbs.
“I’ve heard of it happening, but that’s the first time I’ve ever seen it,” Burke said of someone throwing up during the race. “I was able to get around him after that. … Then I actually ended up catching back up to Fourcade because they started playing around, setting up for the finish … but as soon as I caught them they started sprinting, so I was pretty gassed.”
“It was a brutally difficult race,“ Landertinger, who placed fourth (+20.7) with three penalties, said in an Austrian Ski Federation press release. “On the one hand the course was extremely slow and strenuous, on the other it was difficult to assess the wind correctly on the shooting range. I had a strong final loop, where I was able to prevail against Fourcade and Rastorgujevs in the end. I am very happy with the race and the result.“
Overall, Burke skied the eighth-fastest course time, as well as the sixth-fastest final loop.
“I really like the course, that’s why I was disappointed with the sprint [on Thursday] because I feel like on a good day here I could have been one of the faster skiers,” Burke said. He placed 23rd in Thursday’s 10 k sprint with with 80 percent shooting.
“I was definitely really happy with the result. It was a crazy race with the conditions,“ Burke concluded. “[It’s my] best result this year. I feel like I can be up there more often and hopefully this will be a good step moving forward.”
Fast Skiing Wins The Race
A blizzard in the early morning with strong snowfall that lasted for about 30 minutes was followed by dry strong winds which made ski preparation difficult, with a number of wax technicians reportedly already out on the course at night, working with headlamps to prepare optimal skis for the athletes.
“Today was really challenging for a lot of the technicians … I saw really big differences with the skis out there on the course,” Burke said. “We [the Americans] were in the mix.”
At the start of the race, the scenic Canadian Rockies were shrouded by thick clouds but without precipitation, although later it started to lightly snow. Wind conditions were difficult right out of the gate, and only four athletes out of 30 in the mass start managed to shoot clean in the first stage, despite a fairly slow pace on the loop with the field bunched together.
After the second shooting stage, Eder had been in the lead with clean and very fast prone shootings, but when he came back into the range the third time for his first standing stage, strong gusts of wind made it difficult for him — as well as the other top athletes — and three penalties set him back. Eder finished the race in 14th place (+57.3), with four penalties.
“Unfortunately I had no chance today. The wind in the third shooting decided the race, otherwise I would have been very well in the mix,” Eder said in the Austrian team press release. “I can’t help it. Just tick it off and look ahead.”
Fillon Maillet moved up from sixth to first place during the third loop and third shooting stage. After no athlete in the lead group was able to shoot clean in the last stage, either, the Frenchman headed out on the final loop in first, with Rastorgujevs 13.9 seconds behind. Meanwhile, Windisch, who was 14.3 seconds back to start the loop, and Doll, 20.7 seconds behind, came flying out of the penalty loop.
At the 13.4 k timing point, Windisch had taken the lead with the other three close behind him. Then at the last timing point 700 meters before the finish, Fillon Maillet still remained ahead of Doll, but into the final stretch, Doll pushed ahead of him.
Rastorgujevs, often one of the fastest skiers in the field but a somewhat shaky shooter, especially in standing, fell behind Doll and Fillon Maillet on the last loop and also lost the finish sprint to Landertinger by 0.2 seconds. He finished fifth place (+20.9), with three penalties, narrowly missing the first World Cup podium of his career.
“Last 1.5 kilometers I am empty, totally empty. No chance for fighting,” he said in a post-race English interview with the IBU. “My shooting today was good, but I am not so happy with [the] last shooting.”
Doll closed in on the victory, but partly due to the short finishing stretch in Canmore, he was unable to catch Windisch.
“My skiing was very good, and I really had great material,” Windisch said during the press conference. “I want to dedicate this victory to our wax men, they really did a great job.”
“It was not easy today because of the wind,” he added. “I think this shows what biathlon is [about], the field is so close and everybody can win.”
Asked about the final loop, Windisch recalled: “I just wanted to keep Rastorgujevs [behind me]. But I saw that I had faster skis, so I thought, ‘I have to take my chance now.’ I tried, and it finished well.
“Since I was a child I have watched the World Cup competitions in Antholz and saw my coach Andreas Zingerle [on the podium] there. He was an idol for me. Since this time I was dreaming of competing in the World Cup,” Windisch added
Asked about the successes of the Italian team this season, he said: “I think we are a good team, we are a young team, there is good harmony on the team, and we are good friends. It’s joy.”
“I had a bit of stitch on the last loop, breathing is still not easy,” Doll told German TV broadcaster ZDF immediately after the race, still gasping for air. “The snowfall that began during the race made an allegedly easy course very arduous.”
Doll recorded the fastest course time of all 30 athletes, but said he struggled especially on the last loop.
“I saw the guys ahead, but I have to admit my bigger fear was about those behind because there were seven or eight guys following me,” Doll said of the final 2.5 k. “So I said to myself that I have to go full-throttle right from the start so they never catch up. That worked well, but I didn’t expect to be able to make up two more positions. Quentin [Fillon Maillet] didn’t look so fresh anymore, and I made use of that.”
“After my bad sprint, I wanted to do a good shooting,” the 23-year-old Fillon Maillet said during the press conference, after notching his third-career podium. “Today the conditions were windy, very windy… Three mistakes is [usually] not very good, but today that was good shooting. Skiing was very hard on the last loop. But I am very happy for this race… I prefer racing in mass starts or pursuits, because we are all very close together…. Maybe I have more motivation for this [type of] race.”
The World Cup Leaders
It was also an uncharacteristically difficult race day for the leaders in the overall World Cup standings. Fourcade incurred six penalties, but was able to place sixth thanks to the second-fastest skiing time on the course. Russia’s Anton Shipulin finished 17th with six penalties, and Germany’s Simon Schempp in 21st place with eight. In the standings, Schempp moved into third, ahead of Norway’s Tarjei Bø, who is skipping the World Cup stages in North America, by one point.
Smith Frustrated with Ski Speed, Bailey with Shooting
Canada’s lone man in the mass start, Nathan Smith finished 16th (+1:12.1) with three penalties) and American Lowell Bailey placed 20th (+1:46.7) with five penalties. The field is limited to 30, with the top 25 in the World Cup standings and five others with the best sprint results in Canmore.
“On the first lap I thought this could be good,“ Smith said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “I’m still feeling kind of tired on the skis so I was making up some time on the range thankfully so I could maintain my placing in the middle of the pack.”
Smith had one miss in the first prone stage and left the range in 12th place.
“Usually a miss in the first prone will put me off the back in 25th or so, but with the tricky conditions it was pretty much equivalent to 5/5,” Smith wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “At that point I thought I could still be in the mix through the whole race.”
In the second prone, he shot clean, improving to eighth, 33.5 seconds out of first, but lost positions on the course again with the 26th-ranked time on that loop. Overall, his course time ranked 24th.
“I knew my skiing was once again not good enough,” he wrote. “I was getting passed on course and couldn’t hang on. I knew today it would take perfect shooting for a strong result.”
He went on to record two more penalties in the standing stages.
“My standing actually felt amazing today,” Smith wrote. “I was kicking myself for missing one shot in each.”
“We are all shooting at the same time in a mass start so if it is windy, it is windy for everyone,” he explained in the press release. “There was a reasonable amount of wind in standing, but not so windy you couldn’t hold the rifle and focus on the target.”
On the final loop, three competitors passed Smith, and as he headed toward the finish to finish 8 seconds behind Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev in 15th, Smith waived to his hometown crowd.
“I tried my best to maintain position on the last lap but just couldn’t hang on,” Smith wrote. “The crowd was so loud each time I came into or looped behind the stadium. I felt privileged to come ‘home’ to the finish with all that support.”
“16th is a good result for me,” Smith concluded. “I’m happy with where my shooting is at but am becoming more and more frustrated with my ski shape. I’m not sure what has gone wrong but I’m going to look for a solution.”
After a first loop in the top third of the pack, U.S. Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey had one more miss than Burke and Smith in the first shooting stage, setting him back to 21st place at the time.
“I didn’t take enough clicks [sight adjustments] to account for the wind change in the first prone,” Bailey wrote in an email. “You never want to start out a race with two penalties.”
With the help of his coaches, he made the necessary adjustments for the next prone stage, this time cleaning it.
“The coaches show you a board with all of your shots at some point on the foregoing loop,” Bailey explained. “After a 6-click wind in the first prone, the wind died back to calm by the second prone. This meant I could just aim for the center.”
In the third shooting, Bailey incurred two more penalties, dropping him back down to 21st and 1:13 out of first, and then he missed one more in the final shooting stage to leave the range in 20th, 1:37 behind the leader.
“There wasn’t much wind in the third shooting and I can only blame myself for those misses,” he wrote.
Overall Bailey recorded the 21st course time. “I felt fine,” he explained of his skiing. “It definitely wasn’t the ski course that was holding me back today. ”
“I’m disappointed with the race,” he wrote. “I put a lot of focus and effort into this world cup [in Canmore]. I came directly here in preparation following the Antholz World Cup and I really felt prepared for these races. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put it together on the range over the past two races. It’s frustrating, but you can’t go back and re-do it… you just have to focus on what adjustments need to be made going into the next races.”
He placed 24th in the sprint, just behind Burke with two penalties. Smith finished 31st in that race with one miss.
The World Cup in Canmore concludes with a mixed relay (2 women, 2 men) and a single mixed relay (1 woman, 1 man) on Sunday.
Burke and Bailey plan to race the mixed relay for the U.S., together with Hannah Dreissigacker and Susan Dunklee at the start, while Leif Nordgren and Annelies Cook will team up for the single-mixed relay.
“I just want to put together a decent performance on the range. That’s my goal,” Bailey wrote.
Biathlon Canada will aim for a podium at home this weekend; after Rosanna Crawford and Nathan Smith were able to achieve second place in the single mixed relay at the opening World Cup in Östersund, Sweden.
On Sunday, Smith will team up with Julia Ransom, while Crawford races the mixed relay with Sarah Beaudry, Macx Davies, and Brendan Green.
“Julia has been so strong lately, I know we will put on a good show for the home crowd!” Smith wrote.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.