PRESQUE ISLE, Maine - Biathletes from 30 countries began arriving in northern Maine this week in preparation for the only two North American stops on this season's World Cup Biathlon circuit.
At a press conference in Presque Isle on Wednesday, members of the US Biathlon World Cup Team, including Lake Placid's Lowell Bailey and Haley Johnson, said they are excited about the upcoming races and glad to be back on familiar trails.
Both skiers, along with fellow teammate Tim Burke, of Paul Smiths, spent time training with the Maine Winter Sports Center out of Fort Kent, Maine, home of the 10th Mountain Center and host of next week's World Cup races Feb. 10-13.
But first, the team competes in World Cup races at Presque Isle's Nordic Heritage Center from Friday through Sunday.
"They've done a great job here in Presque Isle preparing the track and the venue," Bailey said at Wednesday's press conference. "It's a huge undertaking and I don't think people understand the scope of putting on a World Cup."
Bailey is fresh off a memorable weekend at the World Cup competition in Antholz, Italy, where he took 12th in the 10-kilometer sprint race for his second-best career finish, qualifying him for the mass start. Bailey then teamed up with Burke, Leif Nordgren and Jeremy Teela to take ninth in the team relay.
"It was the best race of my life," said Bailey of his sprint finish. "For sure I had better shootings before that, but my skiing was really good. I'm actually so happy, I can't even talk."
The sport of biathlon, Bailey said, is extremely competitive at the World Cup level this season.
"There are maybe 50 or 60 (skiers) on any given day who could reach the podium," he said. "I can see why it's the number one television sport in Europe. It's an exciting sport and you never know when the lead will change."
Stepping on the podium in Presque Isle or Fort Kent would be "a huge step," Bailey said, adding, "I hope to do that in my career and that being said, I am here to do and race my best."
Johnson agreed, saying she too is happy to be back in northern Maine.
"After spending a good portion of my development time here, I'm really excited to race in Presque Isle and Fort Kent," she said. "The training has gone really smoothly and all the elements have come together, the venue looks good and they are making it look like it comes naturally to them."
Neither Johnson nor Bailey are looking at the hundreds of other biathletes as podium rivals. Rather, the two look inward to find their toughest competition on the trails and on the range.
"I am entirely focused on myself and I'm my biggest competition," Johnson said. "Biathlon is a sport where you have to fight paying attention to the people around you. You can't follow someone else's rhythm or pace."
Burke had hoped to compete in Presque Isle but according to team coach Jonne Kahkonen, a cold will more than likely keep him off the trails in Presque Isle.
"But for sure he will be ready for Fort Kent," Kahkonen said.
"I think things are looking good for the team," the coach added. "So far we've had a good start and a good season."
Biathlon action gets under way in Presque Isle Friday morning, with the men's sprint at 9:30, followed by the women's sprint at 12:15.
The 12-kilometer mixed relay takes off from the start line at 2:25 p.m. on Saturday and competition at the Nordic Heritage Center wraps up with the men's pursuit at 10 a.m. and the women's pursuit at noon.