When Clare Egan strolls through Presque Isle this week at the Biathlon World Cup, she won’t have to worry about paparazzi.

After all, biathlon – a hybrid of rifle marksmanship and cross-country skiing – generates scant interest in the United States.

But it’s a big deal in Europe. The last time the Biathlon World Cup was held in Maine – in Fort Kent and Presque Isle on consecutive weekends in 2011 – the races were seen by European television audiences of 67 million and 52 million, respectively.

Egan, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, caught a glimpse of their passion for the sport last winter during her first season on the World Cup circuit.

She was in a tram station in Oslo, Norway, fumbling with a ticket machine that wouldn’t accept her credit card. Egan started to panic. She was still at the racing venue and headed for a downtown restaurant to meet her parents, visiting from the states. The only other thing in her wallet was a single American dollar.

An older Norwegian man came over, said nothing, bought a ticket and handed it to her.

Egan thanked him, pulled out her dollar bill and offered to sign it “Team USA!”

He smiled.

“No,” he said. “Sign it Clare Egan.”

Egan’s eyes widened. Until arriving in Oslo, she had taken part in exactly one World Cup relay (in Italy, where her U.S. team placed fourth) and one World Cup individual race, a 7.5-kilometer sprint in the Czech Republic in which she placed 73rd.

“He knew who I was,” she said, “because he’s a biathlon fan.”

CIRCUITOUS PATH TO PRESQUE ISLE

Egan, 28, and the rest of her teammates are hoping to convert a lot of Mainers into biathlon fans over four days of competition that begin Thursday at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle. Ninety women and 105 men, representing 25 countries, are expected to compete in six races that will be broadcast in prime time in Europe.

“It’s the most popular winter sport in Europe,” Egan said.

Her path to Presque Isle has been long and circuitous. She ran cross-country and track at Cape Elizabeth High School and also was a Nordic skier. After graduating in 2006, she enrolled at Wellesley College, which didn’t have a ski program until she started one. A junior year abroad (in Italy and Switzerland) allowed her to save a year of NCAA eligibility, which she used while earning a master’s in linguistics at the University of New Hampshire.

“I think we have barely scratched the surface of what Clare’s abilities are,” says the president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon. “We need to have her training at the national level for three or four years before we see what she can do." Manzoni/NordicFocus

“I think we have barely scratched the surface of what Clare’s abilities are,” says the president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon. “We need to have her training at the national level for three or four years before we see what she can do.” USBiathlon/NordicFocus

In 2011, Egan moved to Vermont as part of the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, a cross-country skiing development program. Near the end of her second season there, she tried biathlon and became intrigued with the .22-caliber rifle marksmanship woven through a cross-country ski race. She rose steadily through the ranks, and last January made her World Cup debut in a relay in Italy.

Since scoring a World Cup point last March in Finland at her first World Championships, Egan earned a spot at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York.

“I think we have barely scratched the surface of what Clare’s abilities are,” said Max Cobb, the president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon, with headquarters located at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. “We need to have her training at the national level for three or four years before we see what she can do. She’s already proved she can shoot well under pressure.”

Egan opened this World Cup season by cleaning all 10 targets in a 7.5-kilometer sprint race in Sweden in early December to place 16th among more than 100 of the world’s best biathletes.

“And I didn’t even feel that great on skis,” Egan said. “I kind of felt like I was in third gear. So I was psyched.”

Egan figured 16th was a mere step on the path to prize money and podium finishes and possibly even an unprecedented U.S. Olympic biathlon medal at the 2018 Games in South Korea.

The thought that kept running through her mind: “I’m going to do even better than this. I’m just getting started!”

Reality set in the following week in Austria, and in ensuing World Cups. She dropped back to 83rd and 84th in Austria and Slovenia, to 74th in Germany and to 67th in Italy. She has yet to enjoy another clean shooting performance and, most puzzling, saw a significant drop in ski speed relative to her peers.

So while the rest of the World Cup parade touched down in Canmore, Alberta, last week for the first of two North American stops, Egan returned to her training base in Lake Placid to take a much-needed mental break, get in some quality workouts and try to position herself for success in Aroostook County.

“It’s been absolutely brutal,” she said. “Especially after doing so well the first week.”

Egan is scheduled to race Thursday afternoon in the women’s 7.5k sprint with hopes of being among the top 60 qualifiers for Friday’s 10k pursuit race. She also will race in Sunday’s concluding 4-by-6k relay.

“Biathlon is all about resilience,” she said. “I’m good at turning things around for the next race, but it is exhausting.”

AROOSTOOK HOSPITALITY, ORGANIZING

This will be Egan’s third time competing at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, but first time with a rifle strapped to her back. She skied there in the 2006 Eastern High School Championships – “I think I was third overall, behind Sophie Caldwell, who already has a (World Cup) gold medal for the U.S. Ski Team” – and in the Eastern Cup season opener in December 2009.

“That was my winter that I was self-declared ‘Most Improved’ on the Eastern Cup circuit,” she said with a laugh. “I went from third to last in that Eastern Cup” – she had fallen and broken a binding – “to the NCAA Championship in March.”

Clare Egan will be competing for the third time at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, but first time with a rifle strapped to her back. NordicFocus

Clare Egan will be competing for the third time at the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle, but first time with a rifle strapped to her back. USBiathlon/NordicFocus

Biathlon’s World Cup tour first arrived in Aroostook County when Fort Kent hosted an event in 2004. European television loved the venue, loved the hospitality and loved the fact that daylight competition in Maine translated to prime time in Europe, where an audience of 26 million tuned in.

Presque Isle, with more lodging capacity, hosted the Junior World Championships in 2006 and again in 2014.

Overseeing all that activity was the Maine Winter Sports Center, led by Andy Shepard. After 15 years of funding the winter sports center, the Libra Foundation parted ways in 2014 but retained ownership of the Fort Kent Outdoor Center and the Nordic Heritage Center.

“As always, we’re very proud of the role we played in getting these facilities up and running and helping train the volunteers,” Shepard said. “Now there’s just a sense of pride in stepping back and watching what we feel is the best organizing committee in the world do its job.”

Jane Towle, a Presque Isle real estate broker, heads that organizing committee.

“There is no difference in how we’re doing this,” she said. “We have all our volunteers in place. The community really shines when it comes to doing events like this.”

Towle said close to 500 volunteers are involved in the effort and some hotels have been booked 18 months in advance. She said the economic impact is difficult to predict, but estimated it at between $6 million and $10 million. She said another boost is the presence of Egan.

“We’re very excited to have somebody from Maine,” Towle said. “That’s tremendous. Maine is a town to us, so she’s coming back to the homeland.”

LEARNING FROM HOW SHE FINISHES

Another semi-local favorite is Sean Doherty, 20, of Center Conway, New Hampshire, who won two golds and a silver at the 2014 Junior Worlds in Presque Isle. Doherty competed in the Sochi Olympics, and is coming off a gold-silver-bronze performance at his final Junior Worlds last month in Romania.

At this point, Egan said her promising start seems to be an outlier and the rest of her less-than-stellar results the norm. Soon she’ll know whether the time spent away from the tour will help her ski fast and shoot straight.

Certainly, the hordes of cheering schoolchildren expected for the four-day event will be a change from the raucous party atmosphere of the European World Cups, which are largely contested at night in order to attract more spectators both on site and on television.

“It’s basically a giant beer garden in Europe,” Egan said. “I don’t imagine that’s the environment we’re going to have.”