In Saturday’s World Cup sprint race, Bjorn Ferry gave habitual powerhouse Sweden its third victory of the new season, and its first in a men’s race.
On Sunday, Sweden took win number four. After Helena Ekholm and Anna Carin Zidek, the team’s first two World Cup victors this season, left the Swedes within striking distance of the podium, Carl Johann Bergman used some last-minute heroics to take a 0.3 second win over Ukraine France and Russia.
But if you thought that Ferry, yesterday’s winner, set him up, you’d be wrong. Ferry was slated to start today, but felt a bit off this morning.
He was replaced instead by Fredrik Lindstrom, who used two rounds to move the Swedes from fourth place into second. At just 21 years of age and with a top individual World Cup finish of 10th place, Lindstrom probably wasn’t expected to be the hero of the day – but although Bergman got the glory of crossing the finish line first, he couldn’t have gotten there without his less-experienced teammate.
“It was actually good for us to be a little back in the early part,” Lindstrom told IBU News. “It took away a little bit of the pressure. I was pretty relaxed when I took over.”
By the end of Lindstrom’s leg, he was only five seconds behind the French, who had led from start to finish. But things were about to change.
Martin Fourcade took the tag for France and proceeded to use all three spare rounds in prone. By the time he had left the range, he had dropped to fifth place. Bergman, too, used three spare rounds, and fell from second back to fourth. For a minute it looked like Lindstrom’s work had been in vain – Lukas Hofer of Italy was now in the lead, followed by Evgeny Ustyugov of Russia and Sergui Sednev of Ukraine.
But Fourcade skied the second loop faster than anyone else, and was soon back in the lead. After cleaning the standing stage, he held a ten-second lead over Sednev, with five-second gaps back to Bergman and Ustyogov.
And as exciting as the anchor leg had been so far, things were just getting started. Slowly but surely, the three chasers closed on Fourcade. With 1200 meters to go, he still led by two seconds. But with 700 meters to go, Bergman passed him, and looked like he would be able to hold on for the win.
Though he had lost the lead, Fourcade still had two more skiers to hold off if he wanted to finish second. Try as he might, he couldn’t do it, and after a furious finishing sprint, Sednev nipped him at the line by exactly a second. Ustyugov was four seconds behind, unable to quite close the gap to the podium.
It was the Swedes’ first victory in a mixed relay since 2007, when they won the World Championship. At this year’s World Championships in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, they might be favorites.
But so too might Norway, who started their second-best team today and finished 12th. Four different Norwegians have won World Cup races so far this year, and none of them started today. Because there were no nations cup points attached to the mixed relay, the Norwegian team used the opportunity to gain their up-and-comers some experience.
The Norwegians ended up sandwiched between two North American teams. The Americans finished eleventh and the Canadians thirteenth – and each sat our their biggest star, too, with neither Tim Burke nor Jean-Phillipe Leguellec competing today.
“Eleventh place is quite good for us,” U.S. head coach Per Nilsson told FasterSkier. “It was a good ending of the first trimester of World Cups. The most positive today was the shooting. We were actually the best team of all today! It was nice to see after the struggle we have had, especially for the men.”
The U.S. used only five spare rounds in eight shooting stages, and both Annelies Cook and Lowell Bailey shot clean without having to use any spares.
It was Cook’s second World Cup start ever, and she certainly made the most of it. After receiving the tag from Sara Studebaker in 15th place, she both skied and shot well, and tagged off to Bailey in 11th.
“The relay was really great and it was special for me to be on a relay team with someone I grew up with, like Lowell,” Cook said in an e-mail. “I haven’t cleaned that many times in my biathlon career, so it always feels good to do it, especially at a World Cup! I felt much better on my skis today and it was pretty awesome to be running away from a German on my last lap, even if she did catch me right at the finish.”
Bailey also cleaned, and moved the team up further, into ninth. But he said that he hadn’t even been skiing his fastest.
“I was definitely feeling the last three weeks of racing and I didn’t feel 100 % on the tracks. But I had solid shooting in the range and was able to move up a couple of spots on account of that. Now I’m looking forward to a little down time and a chance to recover.”
Bailey tagged off to Leif Nordgren, who was starting just his second World Cup relay. Nordgren used three spare rounds over two stages and dropped the team back into eleventh.
He wasn’t thrilled with his performance as the anchor leg, and told FasterSkier in an e-mail that his leg “wasn’t very good.”
“I’ve had a few stomach problems this week, nothing to write home about, but it definitely didn’t help,” he said. “I’m still pretty young, so anything less than my best day isn’t going to do me any good. I had three mistakes in shooting. With the extra rounds it was no problem, but that’s still some lost time on the range.”
Overall, though, the team seemed very happy with their result.
“I think it is one of the best team performances on the shooting range that I can remember in recent history,” Bailey said. “We came into today hoping to break in to the top ten. We didn’t quite make it, but we are satisfied with the result. I think it was a bit of a surprise for a lot of people that we were right in the top ten throughout the race.
“It was impressive to see Annelise Cook, in her second ever world cup start, shoot clean without extra rounds while many of the veterans around her struggled with the always fickle Pokljuka winds.”
The Canadians were some of those athletes that Bailey saw struggling with the wind. They used twelve spare rounds and still hit the penalty loop three times.
“Our team has a ton of potential in the mixed relay,” leadoff skier Megan Imrie told FasterSkier. “Unfortunately today, our standing shooting was exceptionally rough. We can maintain good contact with the leaders in the skiing, so when our shooting hits the mark, watch out.”
The mixed relay concluded the first period of World Cups, and the athletes now have a break before competition resumes in Oberhof, Germany on January 5.