As Lowell Bailey rounded the course on Saturday in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, a total of five times in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit, he couldn’t hear a thing his coaches were shouting at him.
The 35,000 spectators in the stadium and lining the track were overpowering them, but their movements gave the US Biathlon veteran all the information he needed to know.
“It was, by far, the loudest spectator crowd I’ve ever experienced,” Bailey recalled on the phone on Saturday. “… There were stands on the course, bleacher stands, that was packed 15, 20 people deep, and I literally couldn’t hear a single bit of information that the coaches were screaming at me.”
After hitting every target in his final shooting stage, Bailey left the range for the last time in 11th, four seconds out of ninth. He wasn’t certain of his place or how many people he should try to catch on the last lap, he just knew it was go-time.
“I figured I was close to the top ten because of where I shot and who I was around, and the way the coaches were moving, jumping up and down,” he said. “But it was literally so loud I couldn’t hear a single bit of information.”
Bailey ended up passing those two competitors just seconds ahead of him on the last climb. He pushed through the finish for ninth place — his best result since placing second in a sprint in March 2014 — 1:22.1 minutes behind the winner, France’s Martin Fourcade, and about a second back from eighth. Behind him, the top Czech skier of the day, Michal Krcmar finished five seconds later in 10th, and Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev was another second back in 11th.
“It was one of those days when I had a little bit left in the tank, and I really like this course, especially the last half,” Bailey said. “I was able to make up enough time in the technical sections to get in a position to pass those guys … I was pretty psyched about my last lap, for sure.”
Bailey had started the day in 20th, 48 seconds behind Fourcade, based on the 10 k sprint on Thursday. Fourcade headed out on course with a two-second lead on Russia’s Anton Shipulin, the sprint runner-up. The man slated to start third, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, did not start because of a cold.
Shipulin passed Fourcade early and left the range 1.3 seconds ahead of him with the clean shooting and the fastest range time in the first prone stage. Fourcade hit all five targets as well, but four seconds slower than Shipulin. The fourth starter, Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, missed one to drop to fifth.
Meanwhile, Bailey missed his first shot of the day.
“When I was shooting I was pretty frustrated to miss that last shot in my first prone,” he said. “That’s not a way you want to start a pursuit.”
That put him in 25th, 1:17 minutes behind the leaders. One loop later, with a clean second prone, Bailey was back in the top 20 in 19th (+1:18.5).
There, Shipulin cleaned again to firmly take control in first, while Fourcade missed one to fall 22.6 seconds back to second with a penalty lap.
A Czech favorite, Ondrej Moravec crashed and broke his rifle in half on the second loop, before that second stage.
“There was a lot of ice on the course, and there was this one downhill in particular that was really treacherous; you just really had to be on your toes going through it,” Bailey said. “I think it was a series of curves, and a lot of the top biathletes were struggling there. … You could tell it had taken victims every time because there were broken poles strewn everywhere. It was one of the most difficult downhills sections I’ve ever witnessed on the World Cup.”
Fortunately for Bailey, he made it to the finish without an incident.
“We had great skis today. The wax crews have done good jobs, they have really nailed it, so I have to thank them,” he said.
With the fastest course time on the third lap, Fourcade raced his way back into the lead, cleaning the first standing stage and leaving the range 10.9 seconds ahead of Shipulin, who had his first penalty of the day.
France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet moved into fourth with his third clean stage, behind Bø, who had cleaned the last two stages as well.
Bailey missed one on that standing but remained in 16th after the eighth-fastest course time on the third loop. At the end of the day, his course time averaged out to 11th overall.
“I’m really happy with that course time,” he reflected. “To get a top 20 in this field with Martin Fourcade and Svendsen and Bø. That’s my target, and then if you can put together a good shooting performance, you can be vying for the podium, so that’s where I want to be.”
On the final standing stage, Fourcade thrived under pressure as usual, cleaning his targets while Shipulin again missed one. This time, Fourcade started the last loop with a 40.8-second cushion to Shipulin, and eased up to a casual pace to take in his surroundings, acknowledge the crowd, and finally bow to thank them before finishing first in 32:53.6, without anyone else in sight.
“My wish is to be as complete a biathlete as possible, not just because I ski fast,” Fourcade said, according to an IBU press release. “That’s what I trained all summer and what I am trying to do now. These kind of wins are the best for an athlete.”
After leaving the penalty lap and distancing himself from the two skiers closest to him, Shipulin also eased off on the last loop. Fillon Maillet had moved into third and Germany’s Simon Schempp fourth with clean shooting on the last stage, leaving the range within four seconds of each other and about nine seconds behind Shipulin.
While Shipulin crossed the line in second, 30.2 seconds after Fourcade, Maillet and Schempp battled throughout the 2.5 k loop for third. Maillet outlunged Schempp by 0.1 seconds at the finish, taking third (+38.3) while Schempp — who shot clean to rise from 17th at the start — placed fourth (+38.4). (Maillet had started just ahead of him in 16th and also cleaned all 20 targets to reach the podium.)
“Today many athletes shot clean because of the good conditions,” Shipulin said after, according to an IBU press release. “After the race I told myself that I must shoot clean in these conditions … Martin is very strong throughout the whole season, so it’s very complicated to compete against such a strong athlete. Hopefully he will give us a new year’s present and let us compete for the win in 2017.”
Bø took fifth (+1:02.7) with three penalties (1+0+0+2), and Bailey crossed the line 19.4 seconds later in ninth (1+0+1+0).
“I’ve done this sport long enough that I know you can make the best plan, and best preparation, and then things don’t go the way you want them to go,” Bailey said. “But I feel like the preparation was really good this year, the training conditions, the training group, the coaching, the staff that we have now, all those variables are good and in the right place, and I’m really satisfied with the way this season has started.”
Two Canadian men also started the pursuit, with Scott Gow heading out in 18th and Brendan Green in 52nd. After a clean first prone, Gow had three penalties (0+2+1+0) and ended up 40th (+3:31.2) while Green finished 54th (+5:30.6) with five misses (1+0+3+1).
In his first pursuit since 2014, American Russell Currier was lapped on his fourth loop.
Bailey was the lone North American to qualify for the 30-man mass start, where he placed 21st on Sunday, 1:17.1 minutes back from winner — once again — Fourcade. Bailey is currently ninth in the overall World Cup standings. Stay tuned for the men’s 15 k mass start report.
The women’s 12.5 k mass start starts at 8:15 EST. American Susan Dunklee was slated to start but did not. Watch it live on Eurovisionsports.tv.
— Jake Ellis contributed