Aroostook County will be at the center of the biathlon world over the next two weekends, as venues in Presque Isle and Fort Kent host the World Cup of Biathlon.
The Cup will descend on the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle Feb. 4-6 then head up the road to the 10th Mountain Ski Center in Fort Kent Feb. 10-13.
The Olympic sport of biathlon combines cross-country skiing with small-caliber rifle target shooting.
More than 400 athletes from 22 countries are expected to compete at the two venues, including one of the best athletes in the sport’s history, Ole Bjoerndalen of Norway.
The competition in Presque Isle kicks off Friday with the men’s and women’s sprint at 9:30 a.m., followed by a mixed relay on Feb. 5 at 2:30 p.m., and a pursuit event Feb. 6 at 10 a.m.
The distances for a sprint race are 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) for men and 7.5K (4.6 miles) for women while the pursuit consists of a 12.5K (men, 7.8 miles) and 10K (women).
Should a competitor happen to miss a target during a race, penalty time is added to their total time.
Action in Fort Kent gets under way with the men’s sprint on Feb. 10, followed by the women’s sprint Feb. 11 and the men’s and women’s pursuit Feb. 12, while a mass start Feb. 13 (15K, or 9.3 miles, for men; 12.5K for women) will wrap up the competition.
“One of the most famous athletes that will be coming is Ole Bjoerndalen. They call him the King of Biathlon, really,” said Jane Towle, who is heading up the Presque Isle competition.
Bjoerndalen owns more world championship and Olympic medals than any other biathlete in history, with 11 Olympic medals, including six golds, and 34 World Championship medals (14 golds).
Headlining Team USA is Tim Burke of Paul Smiths, N.Y.
“Tim Burke is our top U.S. athlete, so we’re hoping he’s going to do very well when he comes to his homeland,” said Towle. “He has trained up here in northern Maine.”
The 28-year-old Burke is a former Olympian who finished 14th overall in the Cup standings over the 2009-10 season.
All nine U.S. athletes scheduled to compete — five men and four women — have trained in Aroostook County.
Rounding out the remainder of the U.S. men’s squad are Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid, N.Y., Jay Hakkinen of Kasilof, Alaska, Leif Nordgren of Marine-on-St. Croix, Minn., and Jeremy Teeler of Heber City, Utah.
The women’s squad is made up of Annelies Cook of Saranac Lake, N.Y., Haley Johnson of Lake Placid, Laura Specter of Lennox, Mass., and Sara Studebaker of Boise, Idaho.
Bailey and Specter are both former Olympians, along with Cook, Nordgren and Studebaker.
With a cast like that, it’s no surprise that ticket sales are strong, according to organizers.
“Ticket sales have been great, and we’re expecting a big crowd,” said Towle.
The mass start race is arguably the most exciting of the races, according to Jeff Dubis, who is managing the competition in Fort Kent.
“The first person across the finish line is always the winner, whereas with the sprint races, you’re starting at 30-second intervals,” he said. “You have 30 athletes come into the range all at once (in the mass start).”
In a mass start race, competitors are competing against each other, but in other events, they will be skiing and shooting against the clock.
The courses in Presque Isle and Fort Kent are both challenging, with Presque Isle’s trails featuring a “corkscrew” hill, which is classified as a steep downhill with multiple turns.
Fort Kent’s course, which Dubis believes is more difficult than that of Presque Isle’s, showcases a steep climb about a quarter-mile after the start.
“We put that in about three seasons ago,” he said. “In the past theirs was more difficult than ours. In other regards the courses are pretty much the same, they’re both really good courses.”
While Fort Kent’s facility has hosted the World Cup before in 2004, this will be the Nordic Heritage Center’s first time holding such an event, and Towle said that preparations are going well.
“It is the largest event that the Nordic Heritage Center has ever hosted,” she said. “We have a volunteer staff that is second to none.”
With Aroostook County not seeing its usual levels of snow this winter, both facilities have had to truck some in for their respective trails.
“Without the artificial snow we would not have had enough to hold this event,” Dubis said.
Fans looking to purchase tickets for the Fort Kent event can obtain them online at http://discovernorthernmaine.com/2011-biathlon-world-cup/tickets/ for $8, or at select businesses throughout Aroostook County for $5. Tickets can also be purchased at the venue for $5.
Tickets for the Presque Isle event may be bought at the Presque Isle Forum now through Thursday or at the venue throughout the event for $5. There is no online sale of tickets for the Presque Isle races.