Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Lowell Bailey.
It’s often a tall order being the anchor leg in a relay, but that kind of pressure is what most closers thrive on. Take Tarjei Bø, for example. The 27-year-old Norwegian had been sent out in first after the final exchange, after his younger brother Johannes Thingnes Bø tagged him two-tenths of a second ahead of Russia in the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay in Presque Isle, Maine.
It was the final day of the IBU World Cup in the U.S., and the last day of World Cup racing before World Championships March 2-13 in Oslo, Norway. For the Norwegians, this was it; Tarjei had three loops and two shooting stages to see what he could do to hold off Russia, as well as France, 13.4 seconds back, to take the win.
Italy trailed 25.6 seconds behind in fourth and the U.S. was another 12 seconds back in fifth at the start of the last leg. For the Americans, Lowell Bailey, Leif Nordgren and Tim Burke had used a combined six spares and avoided the penalty lap to reach as high as fourth during Nordgren’s second leg, and with Sean Doherty closing, they were within 25 seconds of the podium with 7.5 k to go.
But before we get ahead of ourselves and the historic third or fourth place the Americans were eyeing, let’s get back to the race between Norway and Russia.
One and a half kilometers into the last leg, Tarjei remained 2.6 seconds ahead of Russia’s 24-year-old Maxim Tsvetkov, and extended that lead to 7 seconds half a kilometer later.
In his first prone stage, Tarjei hit all five targets, while Tsvetkov needed two spares to clean. France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix cleaned with the fastest shooting and range time on that stage, moving into second, 26.7 seconds behind the Norwegian with two loops to go.
Tsvetkov left the range in third, 46.7 seconds out of first, while Doherty improved to fourth — another 14 seconds back — with one spare. Meanwhile, Germany’s Benedikt Doll used one spare as well to move into fifth, 10 seconds behind Doherty, and Italy’s Thomas Bormolini needed three spares to clean and fell to sixth.
Tarjei took his lead and ran with it, opening up 35 seconds on Beatrix in second place by 4.5 k. The Norwegian entered the range for the last time without anyone in sight, hitting his first four targets then needing one spare to clean. Beatrix again shot without a miss to secure second place, heading out on the last loop 14 seconds behind Norway.
One spare for the Russian kept him in third, 47 seconds out of first, and Germany’s Doll left the range 10.7 seconds later in fourth with a single spare. Just 2.4 seconds behind, Doherty followed in fifth, after using two spares to clean the final stage.
For Tarjei, the last 2 k was more or less a victory lap as he remained nearly 27 seconds ahead with 1 k to go. He crossed the finish without anyone else in sight, securing the Norwegian win in 1:12:09.8. France’s Beatrix finished 30.1 seconds later in second, while a fight for third unfolded behind them on the final loop.
Initially, Doll led Doherty out of the range, then attacked early in the loop while a US Biathlon staff member ran alongside Doherty to encourage him to latch on. But Doll, who recently placed second in the mass start at the World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, was on a mission for the podium — and he needed to drop Doherty and catch Tsvetkov to reach it. He overtook the Russian by the 6.5 k mark, skiing 2 seconds ahead of Tsvetkov while Doherty followed in fifth,, 4.6 seconds behind Tsvetkov.
At the finish, Doll remained in control of third, crossing the line 42.6 seconds behind Norway, while Tsvetkov and Doherty duked it out for fourth. The Russian took it in a photo finish, 48.3 seconds back, and Doherty finished with the same time in fifth.
“Today’s race was a great result for me individually and for the team as a whole,” Doherty said in a US Biathlon press release. “I felt strong on the skis and the finish was so close. I think we are all feeling optimistic for the upcoming worlds in Norway.”
In all, the U.S. finished with nine spares and no penalties, and captured its best result in a men’s relay since 2013. In January, the same lineup placed sixth in the men’s relay in Ruhpolding, Germany. Fourth would have been an unprecedented team best.
“The relay was a great indicator of where we are as a team right now,” Bailey wrote in an email.
Norway, with Lars Helge Birkeland, Erlend Bjøntegaard, and the Bø brothers, combined for first with seven spares and no penalties. They overcame a rough start when Birkeland used three spares on the first prone stage and dropped to 16th in the field. He cleaned standing to improve to 11th, then came through the first exchange in 12th.
“The relay is important for us, especially before the world champs, we wanted to win to have a good feeling,” Tarjei told German broadcaster ARD after the race. “The whole team had two or three misses too many, we didn’t know what would happen, but a really good job.”
Germany stood in first after the opening leg, with Erik Lesser hitting all 10 targets without a miss and handing off to Andreas Birnbacher 17 seconds ahead of Switzerland in second. Serafin Wiestner had elevated the Swiss team with the fastest course time of the first-leg skiers, using one spare in each stage to bring them within striking distance of Germany. Belarus followed just 0.7 seconds behind in third, after Vladimir Chepelin cleaned prone and used one spare in standing. France’s Simon Fourcade came through the exchange a second later in fifth, 18.8 seconds behind Germany.
For the U.S., Bailey tagged Nordgren in 11th, 39 seconds out of first and 11.6 seconds ahead of Norway in 12th. Bailey used one spare in prone and two in standing to leave the range in sixth, then 12th, respectively.
“I didn’t have an especially great day, but the rest of the guys had solid performances and brought us back up into legitimate contention for a bronze,” Bailey wrote.
Canada’s Scott Perras cleaned prone to follow Bailey out of the range for the first time in seventh, then used three spares in standing and slipped to 13th, more than a minute behind the leaders.
At the exchange, Perras tagged Carsen Campbell in 14th, 1:15 back. Campbell improved to 13th, using one spare in each stage, and Matthew Neumann used five spares (three in prone, two standing) to slip one spot to 14th, but the Canadians were taken out of the race on the final loop when Matthew Hudec was lapped. Hudec used just one spare in prone but incurred a penalty loop after using all three in standing, making the team total 14 spares and one penalty.
At the front of the race, Switzerland took control on the second leg with Benjamin Weger, who cleaned prone and used one spare in standing. Italy moved into second, 33.4 seconds back after Lukas Hofer used three spares (one prone, two standing) and skied the second-fastest course time of the second leg.
Alexander Povarnitsyn put Russia in third, 38.4 seconds behind, with a clean prone and single standing spare, and Germany fell to fifth when Birnbacher used all three spares in prone and two more in standing.
“I really have no explanation for my prone shooting,” Birnbacher told German broadcaster ARD. “I somehow felt I had hit, but… Then I clicked after the second or third miss, by right, because the wind was a little coming from there. In zeroing it was kind of the same. So this is pretty inexplicable.”
Temperatures were frigid in Presque Isle on Saturday morning, around -22 degrees Fahrenheit, which warmed up to about 8 degrees by the 2:20 p.m. start. Windchill was still a factor, and some athletes, like Perras, skied with mittens over their gloves to keep their hands warm for shooting.
“I like racing in the cold weather,” Nordgren, the Americans’ second-leg skier, wrote in an email. “I think as North Americans that’s something that we get used to growing up, and have an advantage over central Europeans maybe.”
He rose from 11th at the exchange to seventh with a flawless prone stage, then left the range in fourth after standing, where he used one spare.
“I was pretty happy with my race today, I tried to be aggressive and attack right from the start, with my shape I’ve had this season that is the only way I’m able to hang in the race,” Nordgren wrote. “I was so disappointed with my shooting after the sprint race, I just made sure to follow my shooting plan and it paid off. Getting the tag from Lowell in 11th, I knew that with good shooting would be the best chance I had of moving up.”
In Thursday’s sprint, Nordgren placed 65th with 7-for-10 shooting. On his final loop on Saturday, he slipped three places (behind France, Norway and Germany) to seventh, tagging Burke 55.8 seconds out of first and 4.3 seconds behind Germany in sixth.
“It was too bad that I ran out of gas on the final loop, it would have been nice to put Tim in a better position, but I gave all I had with my shape for today,” Nordgren wrote.
Switzerland dropped out of contention when 25-year-old Mario Dolder failed to cleaned prone with three spares and had to ski a penalty loop. That put him in fifth, then he used all three spares again and incurred another penalty in standing to slip to eighth. He tagged Swiss anchor Martin Jaeger nearly 1:50 minutes back in eighth.
Norway moved from fifth to first with Norway’s J.T. Bø, who had been tagged 51 seconds out of first and came within 19 seconds of the lead in fourth after prone (using two spares to clean). In standing, he used one spare and left the range in second, 6.3 seconds behind Russia’s Dmitry Malyshko, who had cleaned the stage and used one spare previously in prone.
Behind Norway and Russia, which ultimately came through the last exchange in first and second, France picked off one place to tag in third, ahead of Italy and the U.S.
France put together the most consistent race of the day, after Simon Fourcade tagged Quentin Fillon Maillet in fourth, then he held that position to hand off to Simon Desthieux in fourth, 48 seconds out of first.
Desthieux shot without a miss to elevate the team to third, 13.4 seconds behind Norway with one leg to go.
Meanwhile, Burke used a spare in each stage to bring the U.S. from seventh to fifth, with the fourth-fastest course time of the third leg.
Doherty skied the fourth-fastest anchor leg, behind Austria’s Julian Eberhard (who anchored his team to ninth), Doll and Bø, respectively.
“It was good to make a win in the last race,” Tarjei Bø said. “Now we have two weeks at home…”
Switzerland’s Jaeger was lapped and his team ended up 13th, ahead of Canada in 15th.
When ARD asked the Germans how they would spend their last day in Presque Isle before heading home, the team’s third leg, Daniel Böhm responded, “We have planned our day front to back, we basically don’t know how we’ll get everything done,” he said with a laugh. “No, Walmart I think is closed on Sundays, so it will be difficult to get through the day. I think it will come down to surfing on the internet, reading, and maybe playing some cards.”
Nordgren wrote that he’ll fly to Germany on Sunday for a week of “easy training” before World Championships. The rest of the U.S. team could not be immediately reached for comment.
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
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.