With cold, fierce gusts of wind blowing over the biathlon range in Oberhof, Germany, the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Saturday was decided in the first standing stage. Out of a top group of seven athletes, only France’s Martin Fourcade was able to shoot clean to create a 35-second gap. In the final shooting, he cleared his targets in a slow but controlled rhythm, avoiding the penalty lap once again, while his pursuers missed more shots to increase the gap to an insurmountable lead.
Fourcade, the dominant athlete of the season so far who only missed the podium in the sprint two days ago, crossed the line in a time of 36.45.7 minutes with only one penalty (0+1+0+0), clapping and waiving to the crowd on the long finish stretch.
“That is a difficult situation, something I fight with during a lot of competitions in my career,” Fourcade commented on his final shooting at the press conference. “On some days it’s a good decision to wait, like it was today. Some days you just regret afterwards to not join the penalty loop as fast as possible.”
“My fingers were very cold, and in biathlon we can’t use big gloves for the shooting,” Fourcade said of the challenging conditions to German broadcaster ZDF. “Getting them warm was my main occupation during the race … I knew shooting was the key today. In French I would say I have a ‘hard head’, when I am not satisfied about one competition I am often good the day after. So I am very happy to do it again today.”
Germany’s Arnd Peiffer thought he had lost all chances for a podium finish with two penalties in the final standing shooting, but managed to refocus to hit his last two shots and with all of his closest competitors incurring at least as much — e.g. Austria’s sprint winner Julian Eberhard missed every target in that stage — he still was able to secure second place by a comfortable margin for his best result of the season (+1:09.9 with 3 penalties).
“In the last shooting with two misses I already thought I had gambled the race away,” Peiffer told ZDF after the race. “It was very difficult to shoot with the wind, very turbulent. I am glad that I made the last shot today… I felt pretty good on the skis and was able to close gaps. But the snow is very cold, very blunt, so the skiing is pretty energy-sapping especially on the second part of the loop with headwinds… Only on the last one I didn’t have as much stress anymore with a large gap behind me. There is nothing better than skiing into the finish relaxed like that.”
Four athletes, who each had to ski five penalty laps during the race, fought for the third spot on the podium. Italy’s Dominik Windisch was able to repeat his third place from the sprint (+1:32.4), edging out Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen by 0.2 seconds (+1:32.6).
“During the last lap, I was thinking about my strategy, I saw him in the uphill a bit tired, but I think it was a fake,” a smiling Windisch said at the press conference on his last loop with Svendsen. “I tried to attack there, but saw that he was still behind me. I then thought maybe this was a mistake. When he passed me on the last uphill again I thought maybe that’s my chance, because on the finish stretch you have the wind against you. … So I could stay behind and attacked at the end. I am happy that my strategy at the finish was good.”
“He was a little stronger than me in the end. I felt like a log,” Svendsen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I was a little too aggressive toward the end. I thought he looked tired and I thought I could pass him. I ended the long lane in the final stretch with lots of wind. I think he came out from behind me and got a little rest during the decisive seconds.”
Behind them Germany’s Erik Lesser (+1:36.1) and Russia’s Anton Babikov (+1:40.7) placed fifth and sixth, respectively. They had closed a gap of more than ten seconds to Svendsen and Windisch on the final loop, but then had no energy left to pass them up the last climb and sprint finish stretch.
No athlete managed to shoot clean in the windy conditions, and aside from Fourcade, only Ukraine’s Vladimir Semakov was able to limit his penalties to one, finishing 13th (0+0+1+0, +2:08.2). His teammate Artjom Pryma made an even bigger leap in the results after starting in 57th place to finish ninth with two penalties (+1:55.3).
US Biathlon’s Tim Burke had his second-best individual result of the season in 26th (+3:18.9). After starting in 35th, he improved to 17th with two clean shooting performances in the prone stages, before four penalties in his standing bouts (0+0+2+2) put him outside the top 20 in the second half of the race.
“Today was another challenging race with extremely windy and cold conditions,” Burke said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “Considering the conditions, I am happy with my performance today. It’s always good to move up in the pursuit and I feel like my ski shape is getting better with each race. Hopefully I can continue this trend next week in Ruhpolding.”
The other American in the pursuit, Russell Currier moved up 12 spots from a 46th starting position to 34th at the finish (+4:29.8) with five penalties (2+0+1+2), for his best race result of the season.
“It’s been four years since I last finished in the points,” Currier told US Biathlon. “It was frustrating knowing I could do it, but never being able to execute on the few chances there were. Today was the sign of progress I’ve been training for all year.”
Scott Gow was the lone Canadian to qualify for the pursuit in the sprint’s top 60. He finished the race in 45th (+5:45.7), after starting in 43rd, with seven penalties (1+1+2+3).
The biathlon weekend in Oberhof concludes with mass starts on Sunday. No North American representative is qualified for the men’s race, with Lowell Bailey, who currently is in 17th place in the overall standings skipping this World Cup in Oberhof for a training block.
For the women’s mass start, US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee qualified with her 17th ranking in the World Cup standings. Biathlon Canada’s Rosanna Crawford is next in line on the list of “reserve standby athletes”, based on her results in Oberhof, should another qualified athlete have to cancel (e.g. due to illness).
Stay tuned for separate women’s report.
— Aleks Tangen contributed