For three quarters of Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit in Presque Isle, Arnd Peiffer had the biathlon race locked up. The German started the day in bib one, with a 16-second advantage over France’s Martin Fourcade, and grew his lead to more than a minute in the first half of the race—thanks to strong skiing and just one penalty over three shooting stages.
To his competitors, Peiffer seemed untouchable—each time they entered the range, he was already gone.
“I didn’t see him at all,” said Sweden’s Carl Johan Bergman, who was the closest to Peiffer in the latter stages of the race.
But with a stiff wind blowing through the Presque Isle range, and nine inches of fresh snow overnight turning the skiing into a slog, Peiffer came into the range for the last time with his legs sapped of strength, his confidence shaken. He missed three of his last five shots, leaving a big opening.
While Bergman couldn’t convert, France’s Alexis Boeuf could. At 135 pounds, he had no problems in the powder, and seized the opportunity to take his first-ever World Cup win, moving up from his starting position of ninth and making up a minute and 13 seconds on Peiffer over the course of the race. Russia’s Ivan Tcherezov was second, with Bergman third.
Lowell Bailey was the top American, adding a 16th place to his string of strong results from past few weeks. Jean Philippe Leguellec and Brendan Green led the Canadians in 35th and 36th, respectively.
After a big dump of snow overnight, the sun was already shining through the clouds by the time the pursuit started, at 10:00 a.m. But that didn’t make the skiing any easier for the 58 men’s starters. Groomers had been hitting the course since the snow started late at night, but there was no way they could keep up, and the trail’s surface for the race was a chunky, powdery mess.
“When you get a foot of snow overnight, there’s just no way to make the track hard. They did a good job, considering the weather,” Bailey said.
When the surface is that messy, though, “everything gets thrown out the window, as far as technique,” Bailey said. He wasn’t the only one that felt that way—even the top men resorted to unconventional methods of propulsion, including double-poling and V1 on flat sections.
“You just have to fight,” said Norway’s Tarjei Boe, who ended up sixth.
Still, Peiffer seemed to be having no trouble. Tall and stocky, Peiffer is no Boeuf, but he was smooth on the climbs and shot clean and quickly in his first two shooting stages. That left him a full minute and 18 seconds up on Bergman, his nearest challenger.
But the pursuit, with four trips through the range, leaves plenty of time for implosion, as Peiffer now knows. The initial cracks in his armor appeared on his third stage—the first standing. That was the first time the breeze picked up while Peiffer was in the range, and despite taking plenty of time, he still missed one shot. Bergman had no misses, and by the time Peiffer was back in the stadium for his last shooting stage, his lead had dwindled to 30 seconds.
Peiffer declined to answer questions in English after the race, but Jan Wuestenfeld, the German team doctor, told FasterSkier that Peiffer was again struggling with the wind. And by that point, Wuestenfeld added, “he felt so tired…that it was hard for him to even do the shooting.”
With the race on the line, Peiffer choked, missing three shots. While he left the range still sitting in second, he was totally cooked; Tcherezov and Bergman both overtook him on the final lap, relegating the German to fourth place.
“He was pretty disappointed,” Wuestenfeld said. “It was a good race except for one shooting.”
Bergman was the next man into the range—he arrived with just enough time to see three of Peiffer’s targets still standing. He appeared to be on his way to the win when his first three rounds were on the mark, but he couldn’t nail the final pair.
“I thought, ‘now is my chance,’” Bergman said, “until the final two shots…It was difficult—I was lucky that I hit so many, because it was windy, and I did many good shots. But the final two—perhaps I didn’t fight.”
Boeuf was only 18 seconds behind Bergman heading into the range, and when the Frenchman missed just one target, the race was his. He left the stadium with a 12-second lead on Peiffer, and while both Tcherezov and Bergman made up some time on the final loop, it wasn’t close.
Boeuf said he thought his chances for the win were “finished” in the middle of the race, when Peiffer had such a big lead. He chalked up the victory to his ability to keep his concentration—especially with the gusts blowing through the range.
“You have to look at the wind; you have to stay strong,” Boeuf said. “It is not every time, but today, I stayed focused.”
Boeuf had raced in Presque Isle before, at the Junior World Championships in 2006, where he won gold as part of the French relay squad.
“It was great for me,” he said. “I like the U.S.—for us, it is a new place, and it is a new experience.”
On Sunday, the Presque Isle fans were once again fervent, but their numbers had dwindled somewhat, perhaps due
to the overnight snowstorm. A mere 300 saw the men’s race, in which Bailey raced to 16th, the fifth-best World Cup result in his career.
Bailey had set himself up well with his 25th in Friday’s sprint, which determined his start position in the pursuit. He raced well early on Sunday—just one penalty over the two prone stages moved him up to 14th place. But in his first standing, he missed three targets, falling all the way down to 30th, a blunder he blamed on the breeze.
“I let it intimidate me,” he said. “I was a little tentative, and thinking about the wind instead of thinking about hitting targets. That definitely put me back.”
On the final stage, though, Bailey fought back, capitalizing on a sheltered range position on the far left to hit all five targets. He moved back up to 16th, and thanks to a gutsy finishing sprint against Poland’s Tomasz Sikora—which saw Bailey breaking into a V1 to plow through the heavy snow—he held the position to the line.
Per Nilsson, the head American coach, said that Bailey is in his “best-ever” form this year, after backing off some of his more challenging workouts.
“He’s skiing against the best, and he’s competitive,” Nilsson said. “We have changed a little bit in his training plan—he’s a real pusher, so maybe we have pushed a little too much [in the past].”
Nilsson said he was especially pleased with Bailey’s final shooting stage—a strong end to a “roller-coaster race.”
“Mentally, for him, this was really important,” Nilsson said. “I think he was a little fatigued in the third stage, but then he came back and just did his game plan. There was no question [in the final shooting]—it was five solid hits.”
After a big block of volume training, Nilsson said that Bailey still has some room to improve his fitness before World Championships kick off in Russia in early March. Same with Jay Hakkinen, the next American finisher in 27th. After struggling with illness in the early-season, Nilsson said that Hakkinen is “coming a little bit, step-by-step.”
“He’s for sure a man for World Championships,” Nilsson said.
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.