Lowell Bailey wins first U.S. biathlon world title, qualifies for Olympic team

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The U.S. has its first world biathlon champion. It’s Lowell Bailey, a 35-year-old who nearly retired a year ago to become a cattle farmer.

Bailey became the first athlete in any sport to qualify for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team by winning the 20km individual race at the world championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, on Thursday.

“It’s a dream come true,” Bailey said in a podium interview, standing with wife Erika and 8-month-old daughter Ophelia, adding later at a press conference, “I am waiting for someone to wake me up.”

Bailey will compete in his fourth Olympics in PyeongChang, but first he can soak up history in Hochfilzen.

Starting No. 100 of 102 entrants, he was one of three to complete the 20km event hitting 20 of 20 shots. He edged Czech Ondrej Moravec by 3.3 seconds for gold after 48 minutes on course. France’s Martin Fourcade, arguably the most dominant athlete in any winter sport at the moment, took bronze.

“I know how important and good it is for biathlon to have some people outside of Europe winning,” Fourcade said. “I couldn’t be more satisfied about another guy winning today.”

Before Thursday, biathlon was the only Winter Olympic sport where the U.S. had yet to win an Olympic or world title. Biathlon has been part of the Olympic program since 1960. Its world championships have been held since 1958.

Before this year, Bailey’s previous best Olympic or worlds finish was eighth. A little more than one year ago, he had it all planned out that the 2015-16 season would be his last:

For his final world championships to be in Oslo, one of the iconic biathlon venues, in 2016. His wife was pregnant. Bailey would return from Europe. They would continue the tradition of his wife’s farming family, which had for nearly 30 years grown seed potatoes and then a herd of more than 100 bison in Upstate New York.

“We were going to start with raising cattle, because when we ran the numbers it just looked like we can actually make a profit,” Bailey said. “Bison are incredibly dangerous and a very risky business. Our plan was to start a cattle business and become beef producers.”

Plans changed late last season.

Bailey received a call from what was described to him as “a fledgling non-profit” in Bozeman, Montana, looking to build a world-class biathlon center for the western United States. They offered him a job — “I didn’t know that jobs like this exist,” Bailey said — and wanted him to continue competing through the 2018 Olympics while helping fundraise on the side.

“Erika and I thought it over,” he said. “We decided to give it a shot.”

Bailey’s early season was nothing too out of his usual results. His top individual World Cup finish was ninth going into worlds.

But he felt confident after skipping a World Cup in early January, giving him an extra week off during the holidays. Plus, the presence of his baby daughter and the feeling of being “part of something bigger.”

In Hochfilzen, Bailey finished fourth in the 10km sprint and sixth in the 12.5km pursuit before his gold on Thursday. An incredible showing given the U.S. has earned three total biathlon medals in the history of the Olympics and world championships — two silvers and one bronze, all at worlds.

Bailey left the fourth and final shooting stop on Thursday 6.4 seconds faster than the time of Moravec, who had gone about 25 minutes earlier. Bailey had one more 4km loop left to ski, which would take about nine minutes.

“The last loop felt like it was 40 kilometers long and not four kilometers long,” Bailey said. “I was fortunate that I was one of the last starters because I knew where Ondrej’s split times were, so I had every member of our staff screaming their heads off at me.”

The lead was cut to one tenth of a second at the last split with 1.1km to go. With 800 meters left, Bailey remembered a U.S. ski technician running alongside the course, telling him, “Now you’re even.”

“If there was ever a time to find this extra something, this is it,” Bailey thought to himself, that six-second advantage gone. “I tried to stay calm, because with ski technique you can flail and expend a lot of energy and not go anywhere.

“I willed myself to get to the finish as fast as I could.”

As Bailey circled that final loop, he thought back to Sunday, when he was in second place after the last shooting stage in the pursuit and faded to sixth skiing to the finish line.

“Watching the medal go away from me, I replayed this last loop in my head probably 1,000 times the last three days,” Bailey said. “I just told myself if I ever have that chance again, that I can’t let that medal go away. So I kept saying that in the last loop today.”

He reached the finish on Sunday a champion. U.S. high-performance director Bernd Eisenbichler emerged and grabbed him by the cheeks. Bailey screamed. And fell to his knees. And screamed. And screamed.

Bailey leaned over, caught his breath and heard his name on the loud speakers. Then he exchanged a handshake with Max Cobb, the president and CEO of US Biathlon, standing behind a barrier.

“This medal belongs to not only me, but I can think of at least 30 or 40 individuals,” Bailey said.

Another American, Susan Dunklee, is set to join Bailey in qualifying for the Olympic team following the completion of world championships races on Sunday.

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Nate Holland still motivated by repeated Olympic heartbreak

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At 38 years old, Nate Holland knows PyeongChang would likely be his last chance to add an Olympic medal to a trophy case already blinding with seven X Games snowboard cross gold medals.

“I’m not there to get top 10 and go check out a hockey game,” Holland said last month. “I’ve had three Olympics that I’ve done that.”

Holland entered all three Olympics since snowboard cross debuted as the reigning X Games champion. A medal contender, if not the favorite.

He washed out each time. In the quarterfinals in Torino. In the four-man final in Vancouver. In the first elimination round in Sochi.

“There’s something about these five rings that give me a lot of drive, ambition and joy,” Holland said on NBC after his 2014 disappointment, “but they do cause a lot of heartbreak.”

Some snowboarders are ambivalent about the Olympics. Not Holland.

He remembers watching the 1988 Calgary Winter Games growing up in Idaho, a decade before snowboarders were let in. After snowboard cross was added in 2003, a motivated Holland made the subsequent World Cup team and reached the podium.

Holland chalked up a 14th-place finish in Torino in 2006 to being “young and reckless.” The miss that sticks with him to this day is Vancouver 2010, when he was the only finalist not to earn a medal.

“That’s probably the No. 1 memory of racing is that feeling of failure when I got to the bottom,” he said. “Out of a four-man heat, they’re ushering me off, pushing me out of the finish corral.

“Dude, you gotta leave. What are you doing here still? We’ve got to do a podium ceremony.”

“I’m still out of breath. My heart rate’s at 180 still.”

“What’s going on? No, dude, you need to leave. Thanks for coming, goodbye.”

“Those are motivating factors in the gym when all I want to do is go home and go change some diapers,” Holland said.

Holland and wife Christen (who commissioned that trophy case as a Christmas gift) welcomed daughter Lux on Nov. 1, 2015. Lux is already riding on her own three-foot Burton board. In Uggs.

“Thank God for FaceTime,” Holland said. “I’m able to call every day when I’m in Europe and have breakfast with my daughter.”

Her dad is trying to become the oldest U.S. Olympic snowboarder in the sport’s two-decade history and the oldest medalist from any country.

“Some say I’m too old,” Holland says. “I say BS.”

Holland is realistic, though. The man who used to ride by the motto “wreck or win” has become more calculated and listens to his body. The Advil doses are more frequent. He enjoys the spa.

“I come back every year and there’s definitely some question in my mind whether I’m fast,” said Holland, whose detailed injury history included coming back from a December 2013 broken clavicle to win X Games and make the Olympic team. “Every year, I give myself a little pat on the back. I’m like, all right, I’m still in that group. I’m not sitting three seconds out.”

Holland was the fastest at the PyeongChang venue on Feb. 27, 2016, winning the Olympic test event.

He may have picked up nuances on the new Olympic course that the riders half his age have not, but Holland also hasn’t made a World Cup podium since. Snowboard cross was cut from the X Games after 2016.

If Holland can’t crack the top three at any of the four Olympic selection events in December and January, he might be left off the U.S. team.

Holland said he won’t work any harder this winter than he did in 2006, 2010 or 2014. Each time, he felt satisfied with what he put in. What he left the Olympics with — Team USA clothes, maybe some hockey ticket stubs — is what’s unfulfilling.

“You want something that you can’t have,” he said. “I don’t have an Olympic medal, and I’m really passionate about it.”

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Tour de France route for 2018 unveiled

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PARIS (AP) — Defending champion Chris Froome can expect a stern challenge from Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin in next year’s Tour de France.

Froome is chasing a record-equaling fifth victory to move level with Belgian great Eddy Merckx, French riders Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and Spanish great Miguel Indurain.

Froome and Dumoulin won the three Grand Tours last year, with Froome adding the Spanish Vuelta and Dumoulin winning the Giro d’Italia.

The 105th edition of the Tour features a hilly 31-kilometer (19-mile) time trial through the Basque country on the penultimate day.

Froome is a specialist, but Dumoulin is the reigning world time trial champion.

The 32-year-old Froome is still in his prime, while the 26-year-old Dumoulin is approaching his.

“A contest between Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, two riders with similar qualities, wouldn’t displease me. It would force one of the two to try something different to surprise the other,” Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme said Tuesday. “We’re looking at a new generation that wants to entertain. I think that if Christopher Froome is up against Tom Dumoulin, they will want to do that. They will be more or less equal in the time trials. That’s something very exciting.”

The race starts on July 7 — a week later than usual because of the soccer World Cup in Russia — and opens with a flat 117-mile route for sprinters from Noirmoutier-en-l’ile to Fontenay-le-Comte in the Vendee region, on the Atlantic coast.

With the time trial returning after being omitted the last two years, Froome’s Team Sky will be confident of creating early time gaps on Stage 3 — 21.7-mile route starting and ending in Cholet in Western France.

But Sky faces tough competition, because Dumoulin’s Sunweb team is the reigning TTT world champion.

The Tour route, which goes clockwise, features 25 mountain climbs — ranging from the relatively difficult Category 2 to Category 1 and the daunting Hors Categorie (beyond classification).

Eleven are in the Alps, four in the Massif central region and 10 in the Pyrenees.

The difficult climbs start on Stage 10, the first of three straight days of grueling Alpine ascents.

But organizers have preceded that with a tricky ninth stage that could shake up the peloton.

It takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, with nearly 13.6 miles altogether.

The Roubaix cobbles may perhaps trouble Froome, although Prudhomme thinks the British rider can handle anything.

“The leaders of the Tour have the ability to adapt. We’ve seen that Chris Froome has a range of abilities much wider than people said,” Prudhomme said. “He’s intelligent and hard-working. He keeps on winning in a different manner than in previous years.”

Even though Froome will be 33 on next year’s Tour, Prudhomme still thinks he can improve.

“I don’t think we’ve seen everything that Froome has to offer,” Prudhomme said. “He is strong in areas we didn’t think he was.”

The cobbles are followed by a rest day on July 16, and Froome had better make the most of it because the Alps start brutally the day after.

Stage 10 on July 17 has four difficult climbs on a 98.6-mile route from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand. They include a punchy ascent of Montee du plateau de Glieres, featuring for the first time.

“Six kilometers with an 11.2 percent gradient is monumental,” Prudhomme said.

The third day of Alpine climbing begins with Col de la Madeleine, then Croix de Fer (which translates as the ominous-sounding Iron Cross) and ends with an ascent of l’Alpe d’Huez: three of the Tour’s most well-known.

Dumoulin is not in Froome’s class as a climber, but is not so easy to drop. Whether he can hang in with Froome all the way to the Pyrenees, however, will prove crucial to his chances.

The three tough days of climbing in the Pyrenees starts with Stage 16 on July 24: a daunting 135-mile route from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon that follows the second rest day.

Stage 17 is short at 40 miles but cruel, with three consecutive nasty climbs, ending with an attack up Col de Portet.

Stage 18 is relatively flat but the next day’s third and final day of climbing on Stage 19 has four ascents and then ends with a potentially treacherous 12.4-mile descent that will test the concentration of tired riders.

Whoever is freshest after that will have a better chance of challenging Froome in the time trial.

The 21-stage race ends with its customary processional Sunday finish on the Champs-Elysees.

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