For a few kilometers, it looked like Julian Eberhard – the winner of Friday’s sprint – had things in hand in the 12.5 k World Cup pursuit in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The Austrian cleaned his first prone stage and didn’t bleed too much time on the trails to Martin Fourcade, the French superstar who was chasing him down.
But then he missed two shots in the second stage – and Fourcade sailed past him, off into the history books.
Fourcade went 20-for-20 on the shooting range and racked up a 34.5-second win, his 12th for the season, matching a record set by Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen in 2005. And there are still two more weekends of World Cup racing after PyeongChang.
“I am part of this generation who grew up watching Bjørndalen on television,” Fourcade said to the IBU after the race. “He is just so inspiring. I came to the stadium very tired, I want to thank him for being as inspiring as he was as I was growing up.”
Eberhard wasn’t totally out of it though; he cleaned both of his standing stages, climbing back up into podium position. With one stage to go, he was skiing comfortably with Austrian teammates Simon Eder and Dominik Landertinger, in second, third, and fourth place.
Eder and Landertinger missed twice on the final stage; Eberhard only missed once. Again, he had to watch someone else pass him while he was stuck skiing his penalty.
This time it was Russia’s Anton Shipulin, who had started the day 23rd, shot perfectly, and improbably made his way all the way up to second place. It was an impressive demonstration that nobody can be counted out in a biathlon race, even when handicapped by a disappointing result the day before.
“Today, the shooting did the trick,” Shipulin said through a translator at the press conference. “I cannot remember last time I shot clean in a competition with four shooting stages. I think our service men did a great job: the skis were going very fast, and I felt like I was in a good shape. I just wish I had the same mood yesterday.”
And reinforcing the possibility of a comeback was Eberhard. He had never before had a podium in a head-to-head race, only in individual-start sprints, and the two misses in prone easily could have started a collapse.
But he had kept himself to 85% shooting, and nobody could catch the Austrian on the last loop. He held onto third place (+36.7) and for the first time in his career, Eberhard took two podiums in one weekend.
“This was a really wicked race,” Eberhard told Austria’s ORF broadcaster. “One of the coolest I have ever raced. I gave everything in the end, but I wasn’t really hopeful to catch Anton again, he is just too strong on the final loop for that.”
Another Top 10 for Bailey
After finishing second in the sprint, Lowell Bailey of the United States had a top start position in the pursuit. He was quickly caught by Fourcade – who started third – on his first loop.
“I had a feeling that Fourcade would catch me right off the bat, so I was happy to stay with him, and ski with him the first lap,” Bailey said in a phone interview from PyeongChang.
The sprint had been Bailey’s fourth individual race in a row with perfect shooting, but he couldn’t keep it going. Already in the first prone stage he split a bullet, and then had two misses later in the race.
“I was a little bit shaky, I think, in shooting today,” he said. “It’s been a long season, and some days you wake up without the mental focus you have some other days. Today it was a lot of effort to get my zero dialed in and get ready for the race. Knowing that, I’m actually pretty happy with how the shooting went.”
Despite the misses, he left the final stage in seventh place. The American was caught by Germany’s Benedikt Doll – the World Champion in the sprint – and Landertinger, who had rocketed out of the penalty loop.
“I was happy with the way I skied the last loop,” Bailey said. “I knew that [Doll] was in the big group behind me, and he and [Landertinger] were coming. They are two of the fastest skiers in the world. So I was happy to be able to hang on to them until the finish.”
Bailey tried to position himself to come off the final corner and lead to the finish line, but it was challenging given the course setup.
“It’s whoever gets to the top of the hill first,” Bailey said. “Because I was in a group, I was just trying to catch Landertinger and Doll, so that last 200 meter stretch before the uphill I went as hard as I could. I did catch them and I tried to go around them on the outside on the big sweeping penultimate curve. It narrows down to about 2 meters after that… there’s a bottleneck. I about came even with Landertinger but we both were kind of stepping on each others skis. He got out in front, and I had to get in the draft, and wait for the sprint.”
By that point, Italy’s Lukas Hofer and France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix had also caught onto the group. Moving at a high speed, they all shot into the finishing lanes together. Landertinger made it to the finish first, with Bailey taking second place in the group and ninth overall (+1:20.6).
“That was one of the craziest group sprints you could be in,” Bailey marveled. “You were going so fast you didn’t know whether you should stay in your skate tuck, or start V2ing. It was kind of just ride it out to the finish. Definitely, that last climb is where the race is won or lost for many races at the Olympics.”
Bailey’s teammate Leif Nordgren finished 28th, +2:28.9 with a single missed shot – the last one.
“Of course I’m a little ticked at missing the last shot, I’ve been doing that a lot lately, so that needs to change,” Nordgren wrote in an email. “[But] it was a good race for me today, finally I put everything together for a pursuit race. It’s a lot of fun to be in the mix like that, and to take advantage of the opportunity to move ahead in places is good. I had a big group of guys right ahead of me today which leaves kind of a bitter feeling to the finish.”
For Canada, Christian Gow led the way in 32nd (+3:17.4) after starting almost last – 56th – but cleaning all 20 of his shots.
“I am super happy with the race and pumped to have, finally, achieved the elusive 20/20,” Gow wrote in an email. “The conditions on the range tonight were perfect, completely calm in the whole range. I wouldn’t say that I necessarily put any extra focus on shooting today. I had a good feeling in zero before the race and I hoped that I could make a clean shooting happen. I tried to do things normally and not get worried about the possibility of hitting them all.”
He was followed by his brother Scott Gow in 43rd (+4:05.9) with five penalties, and Brendan Green in 44th (+4:09.8) with three missed shots.
— Harald Zimmer and Jake Ellis contributed