The Norwegian men clearly wanted to end this weekend’s biathlon World Cups at Holmenkollen with a bang.
Outshone yet again by female teammate Tora Berger, who swept the women’s sprint, pursuit, and mass start, and down their leader Emil Hegle Svendsen, who has been suffering from a cold, it was up to Tarjei Bø and Ole Einar Bjørndalen to give the Oslo fans a red, white, and blue victory in the last race of the weekend, the 15 k mass start.
Despite having talked just one day before about how tired he was, how his health struggles in the autumn had left him without a seasons-worth of the reserves and how after a late start to racing he’s still coming into form, Bø took the race out from the gun. Bjørndalen was similarly aggressive, trying hard to move to the front and at one point getting shot out past the v-boards, which he gracefully hopped, as he exited a downhill corner.
Both men cleaned the first stage, and headed out onto the course in second and third position.
But by the third stage after the men had transitioned to standing shooting, it looked like the race was headed for a different kind of red, white, and blue victory: one by Martin Fourcade, who had dominated the previous day’s pursuit.
Anything can happen in biathlon, though, and at the finish, it was yet another tri-colored flag set to be hoisted at the flower ceremony. Czech journeyman Ondrej Moravec had outshot Fourcade on the last stage, then held him off on the last lap to earn his first career victory by a margin of 13.7 seconds.
And what a place to get that first victory.
“It was like a dream to me,” he said in the post-race press conference. “I tried to enjoy the last part coming down the finish line, and it was perfect with the spectators. It was an amazing feeling – I don’t know what more to say.”
First wins often come in sprints or individual races, where there’s no chance to celebrate – so Moravec clearly appreciated the circumstances. And in terms of the venue, it’s the only one where a win is rewarded with the chance to meet the country’s royalty.
“To win at Holmenkollen, it’s something special,” Moravec told the Czech press. “After all it is a legendary venue and you get to see yourself with the king. It’s not just another race on the World Cup.”
So how did the audience with Harald V go?
“He asked me if this is really the first victory of my career,” Moravec said. “And I congratulated him on the success of all the Norwegian athletes. It was a really nice experience.”
Moravec and Fourcade, already at the front of the lead pack, had both cleaned the third stage, and hit the course together with a ten-second lead on Andriy Deryzemlya of Ukraine – and 15 more seconds to the rest of the field. Fourcade first skied slow, motioning Moravec to lead, then sprinted past and grew a gap of about five seconds.
But when he made it to the range, Fourcade missed two of his first three shots.
“I was not with good focus,” Fourcade said of the errors. “It was too much to be able to get the win.”
That gave Moravec an opening.
“Perhaps it wouldn’t be a win, but I couldn’t ignore that I had heard Martin miss on the first shot,” Moravec said in a Czech biathlon press release. “Then I tried to concentrate on myself and my shooting rhythm.”
He, too, missed one. But he left the penalty loop with a 16-second lead on Fourcade, Andrei Makoveev of Russia, Erik Lesser of Germany, and Deryzemlya, who all left the range and the penalty loop at the same time. On the first major climb, Fourcade made it clear that he planned to take silver, and maybe even go for gold. None of the others could match his pace.
“I have felt really good on my skis here,” Fourcade said in the press conference. “I hoped to catch Ondrej on the last loop…. I saw that I was catching some time, so I tried to believe.”
But while nobody else could match Fourcade, Moravec could. Try as the Frenchman might, he couldn’t make up enough time on the Czech. The gap shrunk to five seconds, but the effort exhausted Fourcade, and it slowly began to creep back in the other direction. (Fourcade’s skis also appeared to be slower on the downhills, no matter how hard he pushed on the climbs.)
“On the last lap, in the beginning I was a little bit tired, but then I found some energy for the last uphills, and then it was perfect,” Moravec told IBU’s Jerry Kokesh. “It’s amazing for me. The first victory in my career, and after in Nove Mesto [World Championships, on home turf] when I was two times in fourth place, this is crazy. I’m so, so proud of this.”
Fourcade was impressed with the Czech’s closing effort.
“He was really strong on the last hills,” he said, before turning to smile at Moravec. “Well done.”
Behind, another battle was unfolding, as no less than four men seemed to have a shot at third. In the end, American Tim Burke just lost out on the podium to Erik Lesser of Germany.
It was something of a surprise to see Burke charging down the home stretch. Although he and teammate Lowell Bailey had been at the very front with Moravec on lap two, Burke had then missed a shot each in the second and third stages, and disappeared from view.
The key to his race was cleaning the final stage. He had not even been in the main chase group, but as some of those racers accumulated penalties, he jumped up to seventh position, just behind Simon Eder of Austria and 15 seconds from the group that briefly contained Fourcade.
“I could see third, fourth, and fifth ahead of me, but I didn’t think I could get them,” Burke said in an IBU interview at the finish. “Then I started to come back on the uphill, and I started to think, okay, this could be possible.”
With 1500 meters to go, he had caught Lesser, Makoveev, and Deryzemlya. Unfortunately, that’s about the time Lesser made his attack, taking the Russian with him. Burke had to maneuver around Deryzelmlya before he could try for the podium.
On the final climb around the backside of the range, Burke went stride for stride with the pair, passing Makoveev. But Lesser had an extra half a gear and was untouchable, securing bronze and leaving Burke in fourth.
“It’s sort of a bittersweet race,” Burke said in an IBU interview at the finish line. “I’m really happy with fourth place, it’s a good race for me, but I was super close to the podium, and that would have been nice.”
His loss, of course, was Lesser’s gain. The mustached German said that he was extremely surprised to be on the podium.
“After yesterday’s pursuit [where he missed seven shots and dropped 24 places] I was extremely tired and I was thinking, maybe I have to end my career or something,” Lesser said in the press conference, touching his hand to his face as if in an attempt to wipe away the memory. “It was so hard – my legs doesn’t work, my mind doesn’t work, shooting doesn’t work. It was the worst day in this season for me.”
The beginning of the mass start didn’t seem much different. Sure, Lesser shot well – his single penalty came in the third stage – but every time he tried to close a gap, he said, it was “very hard.”
By the last lap, however, he found some energy.
“I tried to just push everything that I had in my legs, and in the end I am very happy, even more happy than I was with the third place in Ostersund,” he said. “When I saw that Tim was coming…. that last uphill in the stadium, the Petter Northug uphill, I tried to do it like him two years ago at the World Championships. Then I knew I had him.”
Bailey finished 27th; the lone Canadian to start, Jean Philippe Le Guellec, placed 24th with three penalties.