This week, Tim Burke reached a serious tipping point. A US Biathlon veteran with six International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup podiums to his name (including a silver medal at 2013 World Championships), Burke stated this past fall that he was going for the one medal that eluded him: an Olympic medal. That meant racing through 2018.
His last World Cup podium came four seasons ago when he placed third in a sprint in Östersund, Sweden. So far this season, Burke, less than a month out from his 35th birthday, had failed to crack the top 20. His season-best result was 26th in the pursuit last week in Oberhof, Germany.
Then, on Wednesday, he skied the second leg of the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, using all three spares on his standing stage and ending up in the penalty lap. The team placed 12th, and Burke wasn’t happy with his performance.
“This year has been such a roller coaster for my ski form,” Burke wrote in an email on Friday. “After the relay on Wednesday, I really considered skipping the rest of the World Cups until World Championships.”
2017 IBU World Championships are set for Feb. 9-19 in Hochfilzen, Austria. Skipping “the rest of the World Cups” until then would have meant missing the Ruhpolding sprint and pursuit, as well as potentially three races in Antholz, Italy, Jan. 19-22.
Burke decided to give it one more shot — or 10 more, to be exact — and suited up for another race day in Ruhpolding: the men’s 10 k sprint on Friday.
After more than 100 racers had finished, Burke was glad he joined them as he ultimately placed 12th for his best individual result of 2016/2017.
“I decided to give it one more try today and was thrilled to finally feel better,” Burke wrote. “Because of my recent struggles, I was very careful not to push too hard early on in the race. I kept the pace just below ‘red line’ and then really went for it about 1.5k from the finish.”
Starting relatively early in bib 21, Burke cleaned the first prone stage and clocked the 13th-fastest course time on the first loop. His second loop was slightly slower yet still competitive as the 19th-ranked time, and he sped up considerably on the last loop after missing a standing target and having to ski a penalty lap. His last loop was seventh fastest in the field, and overall, Burke’s course time was ninth fastest.
“Considering the season so far, I am very satisfied with my course time today,” he explained. “I had probably the best training season of my career, so despite some poor results, I have tried to just stay positive and confident that things would eventually turn around.”
While Burke described his lone penalty (0+1) as “not ideal”, he expected more penalties from others, given the breezy conditions and light snow falling later in Friday’s race.
“It’s always tough to say, but without that miss, I probably would have been close to the podium,” he wrote. “Of course there are many others who can say that as well!”
Burke ended up 1:11.6 minutes out of first and about 32 seconds off the podium in 12th, after eight of the 11 finishers ahead of him hit every target.
France’s Martin Fourcade put together the fastest skiing and best shooting performance of the day, starting 60th and cleaning both stages to finish 18 seconds faster than anyone else with a winning time of 22:34.2 minutes. He posted the fastest course time by more than 20 seconds to achieve his ninth victory of the season, and for the runner-up, Austria’s Julian Eberhard (who also shot clean and posted the third-fastest course time), it was his second podium of the season and third of his career.
“That was a perfect race from the first to the last meter,” Eberhard told Austrian broadcaster ORF. ” I wouldn’t know where I could have gained additional time [on Fourcade].”
Eberhard started 27th, just behind Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen in bib 25, who also hit all 10 targets and took the lead briefly at the finish. Eberhard bested Svendsen’s time by 21.7 seconds to become the new race leader until Fourcade crossed the line, and all three remained on the podium.
“Already in the prone shooting I felt super,” Eberhard said. “In standing, I noticed a little pressure because I knew it could become a great result, but I worked through the sequence calmly, and then marched full throttle until the end.”
“During my [warmup], I was watching the screen, and I saw that Julian and Emil Hegle were shooting clean, and I wanted to match them,” Fourcade said, according to an IBU press release.
About 12 seconds off the podium, Germany’s Arnd Peiffer started 81st (directly behind American Lowell Bailey) and proved to be a threat with clean shooting, but his 15th-ranked course time didn’t quite stack up to the top three. Racing in front of a sold-out, home crowd at Ruhpolding’s Chiemgau Arena, Peiffer settled for fourth (+51.8), ahead of another German, Simon Schempp, who was the only man in the top five to miss a target (0+1) for fifth place (+52.8).
“I would say it was a decent final loop,” Peiffer said of skiing with two Americans, Bailey and Sean Doherty, to German broadcaster ARD. “I noticed I wouldn’t be able to catch up to Emil [Hegle Svendsen]. That was too far away, and I couldn’t add any speed anymore. So I rather tried to keep the fourth place, and luckily had the advantage of knowing all the split times. I just managed to rescue myself into the finish, but I suffered quite a bit today.”
Bailey turned out to be the second U.S. man in the top 20 on Friday in 18th (+1:24.3). He started late in bib 80 and cleaned prone to put himself in the hunt for a top 10. In standing, however, Bailey missed his final shot to drop to 17th and he ended up 18th at the finish with a single penalty (0+1).
Doherty in bib 79 was the third American to qualify for Sunday’s pursuit, racing to 40th (+1:52.3) in his second individual World Cup race of the season (last week in Oberhof, the 21 year old placed 80th in the sprint).
“Today’s race was great,” Doherty said, according to a US Biathlon press release, after missing just one prone target (1+0). “I am continuing to feel better and better on the skis. It was very exciting to be in the mix and finish the last lap with the crowds yelling full force.”
Missing out on the top 60 necessary for the pursuit were Americans Leif Nordgren, who finished 71st (+2:41.2) with two misses (1+1) in his first individual race of the season (following toe surgery), and Russell Currier, who started in bib 1 and ended up 75th (+2:52.7) with four penalties (2+2).
Scott Gow was the lone Canadian to qualify for the pursuit in 42nd (+1:55.6) with one miss (1+0). Brendan Green missed the top 60 by 5.8 seconds in 64th (+2:27.1) with two penalties (1+1), Macx Davies was 82nd (+3:08.4) with three misses (2+1), and Christian Gow 88th (+3:19.8), also with three penalties (2+1).
On Sunday, Burke will start the pursuit 20 seconds after Peiffer in fourth place. Bailey will head out just 12 seconds after Burke.
“As always in Ruhpolding, the times stayed very close today so everything is still possible in Sunday’s pursuit,” Burke told US Biathlon.
The women’s 7.5 k sprint is scheduled for Saturday at 8:30 a.m. EST. Watch it live: eurovisionsports.tv.
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.