The Russians had five times as many chances as the U.S. to win World Championships gold in the men’s mass start in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, today, but even they couldn’t beat out a dominant Norwegian squad which put three racers in the top six.
With five of the field’s thirty starters, the home team had as good a shot as anyone at winning the mass start – and for a moment it looked like Evgeny Ustyugov was indeed headed for victory. But at the end of the day, he – and the large contingent of Russian fans – had to be content with second, as he could not match an aggressive move from Emil Hegle Svendsen in the last 400 meters.
Meanwhile, the lone North American, Leif Nordgren of the U.S., finished a career-best 17th place, worthy of his fist-pump as he crossed the line.
Just as in yesterday’s relay, the start was chaotic, with nobody willing to push the pace in the opening 2.5 kilometers. Only Klemen Bauer of Slovenia put a move on the field, and even then his main goal appeared to be to get into the range without the hassle of being surrounded by twenty-nine other skiers.
Martin Fourcade of France was stuck in the middle of the pack, skiing small and with choppy technique, and Maxim Maksimov of Russia and Tarjei Boe of Norway both double-poled along the side at one point. Nordgren, meanwhile, chilled in the back of the group and avoided expending unnecessary energy.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Nordgren told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I was just kind of going with the flow. The first lap is usually really relaxed, and today was no different. I just sat at the back and stayed out of trouble.”
As soon as the racers hit the first prone shooting the order was changed. A number of top competitors collected penalties on the fickle Siberian range, which has been throwing the world’s best biathletes for a loop all week. Among the casualties were Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway and Arnd Pfeiffer of Germany, both of whom have gold medals from the Championships already.
Back on the trails, the lead pack had been reduced, although it was still a team affair: among the leaders were three Norwegians, three Russians, and both of France’s Fourcade brothers.
In the second prone shooting, top group was further reduced, as most of the competitors picked up a penalty. Leaving the range, only Lukas Hofer of Italy, Boe and Svendsen of Norway, and Ustyugov were clean. And behind them, skiers that cleaned the second stage were catching back up – Nordgren, for instance, was now in 17th place, only 34 seconds behind.
In the first standing stage, Nordgren missed another shot, and was now about a minute behind the leaders. While the top four racers had all cleaned, the field began to break up nonetheless; Ustyugov was ditched, and the Norwegians initially put a small gap on Hofer. Martin Fourcade was on the hunt for Ustyugov, and appeared to be gaining ground.
Then, the Norwegian pair put on the brakes, and the field came back together at 10 kilometers.
It seemed like a tactical battle coming into the last shooting stage – and for a moment it looked like the Norwegians had lost. Svendsen missed one shot, and Boe two, while Ustyugov knocked down each of his five targets and headed out in the lead, much to the glee of the hometown fans. Hofer, too, missed a shot, and seemed to be watching his medal hopes go down the drain.
But just as had been true for his teammate Maksimov in yesterday’s relay, Ustyugov, despite being the better shooter and one of only two men in the entire field to avoid a single penalty (teammate Andrei Makoveev was the other), could not hold up his end of the bargain on skis.
He had a ten-second lead on Svendsen leaving the stadium, which initially seemed insurmountable. But Svendsen took off, and his powerful, efficient skiing drew him closer and closer to the Russian, whose exaggerated V2 seemed to waste energy in comparison. At 13.5 kilometers, the Norwegian caught him.
“I was never quite sure,” Svendsen later said in a press conference. “Ten seconds is a lot [to make up], especially on the last loop. I was never confident, but I raced full speed to catch him and then tried to save some energy for the sprint.”
Skis may have partially been to blame for Ustyugov’s demise: at several points over the next kilometer, Svendsen stood up or even snowplowed behind the Russian.
Hofer, too, was gaining ground; it was not inconceivable that he might catch the Russian.
With only 400 meters to go, Svendsen finally attacked on the last uphill entering the stadium. As soon as the ground flattened out, he flew away from Ustyugov, lengthening his lead and winning easily. The Russian crowd, which had once been so hopeful, was deflated.
“When the sprint came, I had a good feeling and thought it was going my way,” Svendsen said. “It was an incredible feeling.”
Who else felt incredible? Hofer, who picked up an Italian flag and waved it in the air as he crossed the finish line in third place. It was his first podium at the World Cup level, and to do it at World Championships only added significance; it was also the first Italian medal of the week.
“I have been trying to get to the podium in every race,” Hofer said in a press conference. “It was really hard because there are so many strong athletes in the World Cup. But today, everything was perfect, especially my shooting, so I was able to climb up to my first podium.”
A minute and forty-four seconds after Svendsen, Nordgren crossed the line in 17th place. He pumped his fist in celebration.
“I’ve known that these kind of results are possible for me, but I never would have thought that it would all come together at World Championships,” he said. “It kind of blows my mind.”
It was Nordgren’s best finish ever at the senior level, and tied with Sara Studebaker’s result in the individual race for the best U.S. performance of the week.
But while so far Nordgren’s skiing has been one of the most impressive aspects of his performance – he had the fastest anchor leg of the relay yesterday – he said that today his shooting was the best.
“Skiing was a fight the whole race, I am exhausted,” he explained. “I never would have thought I’d race in all six races at World Championships. So today I was pretty happy with three mistakes [on the range]. Of course one shot more would be nice, but I can’t be disappointed with 17th!”
After a long week of racing, Nordgren was ready for one more series and then to call it quits for the year.
“There are a few more races next week in Oslo, so I’m looking forward to those, and then I think that’s it for me,” he said. “I’ve had a long winter, I’ve done more racing and traveling than I’ve ever done before and I’m ready for a little break!”