A real crowd finally showed up on Saturday in Fort Kent, for the first time in three days of World Cup racing.
They got exactly what they came for in the men’s 12.5 k pursuit: an exhilarating, back-and-forth battle culminating in a finishing sprint that was decided by inches—leaving fans and athletes alike unsure of who was the victor.
Five minutes after he lunged with Frenchman Martin Fourcade, Norwegian Emil Hegle Svendsen finally learned that he was the first across the line, collecting his second win in as many days. Svendsen’s teammate Tarjei Boe was third, but it wasn’t close—he was more than a minute back.
With temperatures emerging from their single-digit doldrums, the Fort Kent faithful showed up in force on Saturday. They packed the single stand of bleachers here, lined the trail as it wound through the stadium, and exhorted the athletes with flags and horns.
The thrilling battle on the final lap between Svendsen and Fourcade seemed like it wasn’t to be, though.
The two men started just 10 seconds apart, and after two laps, they were together. Boe and Michal Slesingr (CZE) were also in the mix from the gun, but took penalties early on to fall out of contention.
On the third of four shooting stages, Svendsen cleaned, while Fourcade had one miss. The way the Norwegian was skiing and shooting, with no penalties up to that point, it seemed like the race was over.
But Svendsen missed one on his last stage, and Fourcade cleaned, and they left the stadium essentially dead even for one final lap.
“I saw, just when I finished the penalty loop there, that Martin was clean, and I just thought, ‘oh, no, this is going to be tough,’” Svendsen said.
Fourcade closed the five-meter gap on the huge climb at the start of the course, and the pair settled in for the last of their five 2.5-kilometer loops.
Both men are decent sprinters, so the pace was fairly slow for the first part of the loop. Svendsen made one attempt to shake Fourcade on the last part of the course, but couldn’t do it.
Fourcade came even with Svendsen around the final corner headed into Fort Kent’s downhill homestretch, and the two entered the finish lanes side by side. It was a flailing sprint, starting in a tuck skate and ending with a couple of scrambling V2 strides; Svendsen described the finish as “crazy.”
“You just have to control your legs and your arms, so that you don’t just put one pole in front of your ski and go headfirst there,” he said. “I was sure he was ahead of me, at some point, but over the last meters, I think I was
stronger, and I managed to pull it off.”
Svendsen threw his left leg, Fourcade his right, and the difference was no more than a few centimeters.
After Saturday’s win, Svendsen will have the opportunity to go for his third straight victory in Sunday’s mass start.—a trifecta he has never accomplished in a World Cup weekend.
Fourcade, meanwhile, came out on the other side of the second for the second time in three days. In Thursday’s sprint, he was fourth, just four-tenths of a second behind Boe.
As for Saturday’s pursuit, Fourcade said there wasn’t much he could have done differently. The only place he could have made a move was on the major climb at the start of the last loop, he said, and on that hill, he was still closing the small gap to Svendsen.
“For me, it was impossible to attack before the finish,” he told FasterSkier.
Fourcade will get another crack on Sunday, but he said he was more focused on the upcoming World Championships, which begin in early March in Russia.
“I hope to make the same scenario with Emil, but to beat him,” he said.
With his third place finish, Boe held onto the yellow jersey of overall World Cup leader.
The two straight wins by the second-placed Svendsen have closed his deficit, which now stands at 63 points—but not by much. Since Boe was third on both Saturday and in Thursday’s sprint, Svendsen only managed to take back 12 points each of those days.
“I’m trying to win this jersey by going in every competition,” Boe said in the press conference. “Right now, it looks like Emil is in charge, but I still have some points.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.