Starting with just under a minute separating him from first place, Lowell Bailey made sure he didn’t get too caught up on what could be.
A veteran member of US Biathlon’s national team, Bailey started the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Sunday in 13th, exactly 59 seconds behind the first man out of the gate, Martin Fourcade of France.
Fourcade had won the sprint the day before (and every race so far this season) and started 42 seconds ahead anyone else in the pursuit in Östersund, Sweden, with sprint runner-up Fredrik Lindström of Sweden chasing in second.
Could anyone catch Fourcade? Maybe — but it was going to take some shakeups with Fourcade making errors and others shooting perfectly under pressure.
Bailey was among those given the opportunity to move up significantly in the field. He tried not to overthink it, nor the fact that has led the U.S. in every International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup race so far this season.
“I’m trying to approach every race as an isolated event this year; trying to focus on what I can control that day,” Bailey explained in an email on Sunday.
So far this season, he’s finished 13th in the 10 k sprint and 15th in the 20 k individual races held in Östersund, the first World Cup stop on the circuit. Sunday marked the final day of a weeklong race series.
“I just went into today with the goal of executing all of the things I had worked on throughout the training year,” Bailey continued.
On the first of five 2.5 k loops, Bailey found himself fighting for second.
“The first loop was an incredibly fast pace,” he recalled. “The group I was in ended up catching 2nd place, so by the time we hit the range, there was a group of fifteen or so guys from 2nd to 17th. It made for an exciting start to the race.”
Once on the range, Bailey cleaned the first prone stage and left the range in seventh. He moved into fourth with another clean prone, followed by a flawless standing — his third-straight stage without a miss. With two loops to go and one more shooting, Bailey remained in fourth, about 39 seconds behind the leader and five seconds behind third place.
The wind was blowing throughout the race, even gusting at times, but it was “manageable,” according to Bailey.
“I didn’t really think about the fourth place,” he said of his mindset during the race. “I just wanted to execute a quality shooting bout.”
On that standing stage, which he entered in fourth place, Bailey missed his first two shots. He cleaned the remaining three, but had to ski two costly penalty laps.
“There was definitely some wind, but I can’t blame those two misses on wind,” he wrote. “I lost my focus for those two shots and sent them outside the targets.”
Without much left in the tank for the final 2.5 k, Bailey, who left the range in ninth, slipped to 15th at the finish, 1:21.8 seconds behind the winner.
A 25-year-old Russian who spent most of last season on the IBU Cup, Anton Babikov won the pursuit with near-perfect shooting (0+0+1+0) for his first World Cup podium. He finished in 31:22.3, and his 24-year-old teammate Maxim Tsvetkov followed 10.5 seconds later in second, thanks to clean shooting, to tie his career best.
(Babikov started seventh and skied the fourth-fastest overall course time, and Tsvetkov started 11th and was one of just two men to clean all four stages. Michal Krcmar of the Czech Republic was the other. He rocketed from 38th at the start to seventh at the finish.)
Fourcade, the first starter, ended up third (+15.2) with an uncharacteristic four misses (2+0+0+2).
“From the very beginning, I knew that everything could be possible,” Babikov told the IBU, according to a press release. “We were going very close. Before going to Östersund, I was a little worried, it’s always curious to see how well you are prepared for the season.”
Tsvetkov skied in third for most of the race, concentrating on his shooting and capitalizing when Fourcade missed two on the final stage. There, Babikov took the lead for the first time from Fourcade, now 10 seconds back in third, and Tsvetkov left the range four seconds behind in second.
“This is my first medal in pursuit,” Tsvetkov told the IBU. “It was very tough for me, I knew that Martin was very close, I knew that I have to work hard ’til the end.”
“I had my chance today, and I didn’t take it,” said Fourcade, who had entertained the possibility of winning three individual races in a row. “At my last shoot I was a bit nervous, there was also some wind. My skis were also not perfect at the end of race.”
While Bailey felt like he was missing some snap, especially on the last loop (which he attributed to a hard first loop), he was pleased with his start to the season and is ranked ninth overall on the World Cup.
“I have been ranked this high in the past coming out of Ostersund, but I am definitely happy with the solid start to the season,” he told US Biathlon, according to a press release. “You train all season in a bit of a vacuum — just you and your teammates — and there is very little for you compare yourself to. Because of this, the start of the season can be a bit of an unknown. I’m happy to see that my ski times are competitive and that I’m able to reach the podium on a great day.”
Of 59 finishers on Sunday, Bailey’s course time ranked 36th.
“I hoped to have competitive ski speed and accurate, fast shooting,” he wrote to FasterSkier. “Mostly, I’m satisfied with my performances so far. As always, there’s plenty of things I need to improve, but I’m happy with this a solid start to the season.”
Two American men started the pursuit, with Bailey finishing 15th and Tim Burke placing 35th (+2:39.2). Despite a clean first prone, Burke, who started 29th, tallied four penalties (0+1+2+1), yet still finished in the top 40 required for points. His course time ranked 35th overall.
Scott Gow was Canada’s top finisher in the pursuit in 47th (+3:34.8) and found himself up in 38th after hitting all 10 targets through the first two stages. He then missed two on the third stage and one more in the final standing (0+0+2+1), costing him time in penalty laps.
About 11 seconds later, Brendan Green finished 50th (+3:45.5) with five penalties (2+1+0+2). His teammate Macx Davies finished 51st (+3:54.6). After two clean prone stages, Davies had skied in 35th, but two misses on each standing bout (0+0+2+2) brought him outside the top 50.
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.