Between breaking historic biathlon records and waiting for the imminent birth of his second child, France’s IBU World Cup dominator Martin Fourcade forgot one crucial detail of Biathlon 101 before Sunday’s final race of the season in the men’s 15-kilometer mass start: loading his ammunition clips.
Fourcade only realized he had started with four empty clips when he crouched down on the shooting mat for the first prone shooting, then signaled for help. His coach standing at the range reacted the fastest and threw him a full clip. Fourcade inserted it into his rifle and went on to hit all five shots, leaving the range in 18th position and 21 seconds behind the leaders, almost the time it takes to ski a penalty lap.
But what he and his coach had done strictly was not allowed: Fourcade would have had to wait and receive the spare clip from a race official, because the range is a “no-coaching zone”. While the race went on, Fourcade’s name was marked with an asterisk on the timing screens, and the race jury and technical delegate started discussing if Fourcade maybe should be disqualified or hit with a time penalty.
Fourcade later said he was aware the violation was under review, but decided to keep racing like normal. Before the second shooting he had compensated the gap passing the whole field to take the lead again, and received additional spare magazines this time from an official kneeling next to the first-lane shooting mat.
Seemingly undeterred by the problems, Fourcade went on to clean not only the second stage, but also the two standing stages to create a lead of almost 25 seconds, already celebrating as he left the famous Holmenkollen arena for the final loop. He was the only athlete in the field to shoot clean in all four stages, crossing the line in a time of 37:32.2 minutes under the huge applause of thousands of fans in the stands who had just witnessed a demonstration of his abilities. But would his victory stand?
“I am simply an idiot, because I forgot to reload my magazines before the start,” Fourcade explained during a press conference later. “Today I had a really good day in spite of this huge mistake. I succeeded getting back the time I lost, and then shot clean. I am really happy and proud of my competition. It was probably one of the best days in my career, but it was a competition full of stupidness.”
Behind him, Austria’s Simon Eder and Latvia’s Andrejs Rastorgujevs – usually known as a fast skier but shaky shooter – manged to also clean the final standing stage and went out on the last loop together. Rastorgujevs was faster there, overtaking and then distancing Eder to achieve the first World Cup podium of his career with two penalties in the race (0+1+1+0), 17.4 seconds behind Fourcade. Eder finished third (+32.4) with one penalty (0+0+1+0) to claim his third individual podium of the season (plus two in single mixed relays and two in men’s relays).
In his long career, Rastorgujevs, 28, had been on the podium at IBU European Championships, winning gold in 2014 and at Summer Biathlon World Championships on rollerskis, but never in a World Cup where he only had four fourth-place finishes to his name.
“The first podium in I think more than five years for me, after a lot of fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eigth, ninth, tenth places,” Rastorgujevs said during the press conference. “I am really happy, and I want to say a big thanks to my team and my service guys, who have worked very hard for this second place … I think today is a special day, and it’s also a big party for my team … Now I think this is opening the door for more podiums. We will see what happens next season.”
“Yesterday I joked about a podium [in an interview], I don’t know why I did that, but I am really happy I got this podium today,” Eder explained. “The third race in a row is always a problem for my body, I already know this. I prefer to have a rest day, so I knew it was gonna be hard today. I am happy I got the third place. I saw Andrejs behind me which made me happy, and tried to keep up with him as long as possible hoping for the third or maybe second place but he was too strong for me.”
Halfway through the race, US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey had been in the lead after two clean prone shooting performances, taking the first lane in the standing shooting. But he missed two targets in that stage and had to ski a penalty lap, and then missed another one in the final shooting.
“I think this was one of my best races of the season in terms of ski speed. I felt composed and focused in prone, and was happy with two cleans,” Bailey wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “In the first standing, I didn’t necessarily plan on shooting on point 1, but [Russia’s Anton] Shipulin did not want to lead in and I thought, if anything, it would be a bit of an advantage to be on point 1 if the wind came up. Those two misses set me back a fair amount, but I’m happy I stayed in the race mentally, only had one miss in the last standing, and was able to ski my way back into a top-fifteen.”
Bailey finished the race in 15th place with three penalties (0+0+2+1), 1:10.4 behind Fourcade. But had Fourcade actually won, or would he be disqualified or relegated back?
After the race, the competition jury could be seen on the TV broadcast deliberating the case for several minutes, and ultimately they decided to not take any actions against Fourcade.
“I knew after the first shooting I was under disqualification [review], because the way I got back my full magazine is not the way exactly to do it,” Fourcade said. “It was a possibility to be disqualified, so I wanted to show to everyone, to all the other athletes, to the audience, to the jury also, that it was my day. And if they decided to not give me the victory, I knew in my heart that I had it.”
“I think the jury was right,” Bailey wrote in his email. “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to make a simple, costly mistake, and I think he definitely didn’t gain any advantage by NOT loading his clips.”
Aside from Rastorgujevs and Norway’s fourth-place finisher Emil Hegle Svendsen (+42.2 with two penalties), the athlete who would have stood to benefit the most from a punishment for Fourcade was Germany’s Simon Schempp, who had been in the lead in the mass-start score World Cup standings before the race. But just coming back from a lengthy illness after last month’s World Championships where he won the men’s mass start, Schempp only finished with a 20th place (+1:28.5 with three penalties) in the same discipline on Sunday, and thereby still lost that title to Fourcade.
“The hope was there, but with my current form it is very tough,” Schempp told ARD after the race. “I gave it everything I had. I am disappointed, but something like that can’t be fixed when you come here basically without any training. I lost a lot of points in the standings the last weeks, and I can still feel the illness in my bones. I can’t help it, it happens.”
But Schempp also did not want to get the award back “off the course” by a disqualification.
“I wanted to thank and to give all my respect to the team of Germany and to Simon Schempp, who decided to not ask for a protest,” Fourcade said in the press conference, unprompted. “That’s a big gesture. I really take my hat off to Simon Schempp. I must say how impressed I am by their class, they deserve much more than a crystal globe today.”
Bailey finished the season in eighth in the World Cup Total Score standings, a career best all the more impressive considering he skipped an entire week of races in Oberhof, Germany, for a longer rest and training break after Christmas. That paid off, with a gold medal in the men’s 20 k individual at World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, a second place in the sprint at the World Cup in PyeongChang, South Korea, and another second place in Kontiolahti, Finland, in the single mixed relay together with his teammate Susan Dunklee.
“This is, by far, the best season of my life,” Bailey wrote reflecting on his season. “At 35 years old, I can say that I’ve waited a long time for this season. I have so many people to thank, first among them, my wife Erika for believing in me through it all, and being by side every step of the way. It’s been so great to have her and my daughter on the tour for the majority of the season.”
Eckhoff Wins Final Mass Start at Home Despite ‘Squirrel Drama’
“I hope I didn’t kill it,” was the first comment by Tiril Eckhoff after Sunday’s race to broadcaster NRK.
What the Norwegian was referring to was the only small thing that disturbed her victory in the women’s 12.5-kilometer mass start at her home venue in Oslo: a streaking squirrel crossed the course in a ditch before the longest climb seven kilometers into the race, right in front of a six-person lead group that included Eckhoff, France’s Justine Braisaz and American Susan Dunklee.
The little animal seemingly was confused which way it should try to escape, then jumped up when Braisaz tried to break, with Eckhoff almost running over it as well.
“That squirrel was my favorite part of the race,” Dunklee wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “It ran in front of me then I saw it collide with Justine. I couldn’t help but laugh!”
“Braisaz drove over the squirrel, so I just had to take my ski up and hope it goes well,” Eckhoff told NRK. “It’s good to see some wildlife in the forests of Norway.”
After the race she could have a good laugh about the incident, which her home country’s TV broadcaster dubbed “Eckhoff vs. ekhorn” and “ekhorndrama” by the Norwegian word for squirrel.
Reportedly the squirrel got away alive. And luckily it had not been Eckhoff vs. moose, another common dweller of the Norwegian forests.
Shooting 19-for-20 after she earlier in the season had never hit more than 16 shots in a four-stage race (0+0+1+0), Eckhoff took the lead after the final shooting ahead of Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová, and pushed hard throughout the last loop to create a gap that allowed her to grab a Norwegian flag before the last ski bridge in the Holmenkollen arena, waving to the fans as she skied down the homestretch before crossing the line in a time of 34:23.1.
“I was very fed up with [always] going to the penalty loop,” Eckhoff said at the press conference. “So I just said to myself, ‘Now I’m gonna take those targets down,’ and I managed that, so now I’m really happy … because that has been my main issue.”
Eckhoff had won gold medals in the sprint and the women’s relay at last year’s World Championships at home in Oslo, where she grew up and still lives. But partly due to illnesses she struggled with this season, she didn’t return to form until after this year’s Hochfilzen World Championships. She went on to notch a second place in the sprint in PyeongChang, South Korea, and then a sprint win in Kontiolahti, Finland.
Behind Eckhoff, Koukalová finished Sunday’s race in second place (+22.6) with one penalty (0+1+0+0), thereby securing the World Cup title in the mass start discipline ahead of Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who finished ninth after shooting three misses (+54.2), not able to defend the small lead she held before the final but winning the overall World Cup Total Score title for the first time.
After the race, Sweden’s Hanna Öberg also received the IBU award for the “Rookie of the Year”.
“I was not under pressure today,” Koukalová said with a big smile at the press conference. “I had no expectations. I tried to imagine that I’m already somewhere else, at the athletes’ party this evening for example … It’s one of the best seasons of my life.”
“I am totally exhausted, and happy that there is no more race tomorrow,“ her rival Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ARD after the race. “The miss at the end ruined a better result today, and on the course it was also really tough for me. I have reached my limit now … I hope some energy comes back to celebrate the season tonight.”
Before the final shooting Dahlmeier’s teammate Franziska Hildebrand had been in the lead by almost 20 seconds thanks to three clean shooting performances, with her first individual podium of the season within her grasp. But she missed her very last shot, causing her coach to let out an audible swear, and she had to ski a penalty lap, which allowed the clean-shooting Eckhoff and Koukalová to pass her.
Coming back on the loop still in third place, Hildebrand was chased down by Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen and Czech Republic’s Veronika Vitkova, who passed her shortly before the finish skiing down into the Holmenkollen arena. Mäkäräinen claimed the third place on the podium (+34.5) with two penalties (0+0+1+1), while Vitkova finished fourth (+36.1) and Hildebrand fifth (+39.0). Mäkäräinen’s teammate Mari Laukkanen, the winner of the preceding sprint and pursuit races in Oslo, finished sixth (+40.0) to round out the most successful weekend of her biathlon career.
“It has been some hard time the last two weeks,” Mäkäräinen said in the press conference, referring to the passing of Finnish shooting coach Asko Nuutinen. “I’m sure that has somehow affected my results in a negative way, and now yesterday and today I managed to get the power and do some better races. So I am happy with the result today. I just tried to focus on what I do, not thinking about the result that much.”
“It’s been a very special week with what happened to the Finnish girls, and I am very impressed with Kaisa and Mari,” Eckhoff said at the press conference.
Halfway through the women’s mass start, Dunklee had been in the lead after shooting clean in both of her prone stages, then held on with the top group on the course, mostly letting Eckhoff dictate the tempo.
But after also struggling on the range in Saturday’s pursuit race with ten penalties, Dunklee, who recently exhibited remarkably consistent shooting performances, started to miss and incurred three penalties in the first standing stage and another two in the last one (0+0+3+2).
“I am not entirely sure what has been off in standing this weekend,” Dunklee wrote in her email. “It’s frustrating. Maybe the biathlon gods thought it was time for a dose of humility. My ski form is the best it has been all year.“
In the end she came to the finish in 20th place, 1:43.8 behind the winner Eckhoff.
Still, Dunklee managed to retain the 10th position in the World Cup Total Score standings, another career best to end a season that included a silver medal in the mass start at the World Championships and another podium at the World Cup in Kontiolahti in the single mixed relay with Bailey.
“This is the sort of history making team that every athlete dreams of being part of during their lifetime,” Dunklee reflected on the season. “We have staff who have worked for decades believing this level is possible. Now the door has been opened. I don’t think they will have to wait decades for the next relay medals or World Championships podiums.”