One by one, last year’s heroes succumbed to errors over the course of the opening biathlon World Cup race in Ostersund, Sweden on Wednesday.
Norwegians Tarjei Boe and Emil Hegle Svendsen, wearing the yellow and red bibs of as the previous overall and discipline leaders, only made it four kilometers before the mistakes began. Racing near the beginning of the field in the interval-start competition, each missed two shots in their first of four shooting stages – and in an individual race like today’s, where each missed shot is rewarded with a one-minute time penalty, that hurts.
Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway missed six shots. Bjorn Ferry of Sweden missed five. Germans Michael Greis and Arndt Peiffer missed three, as did Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger and Russia’s Anton Shipulin.
Who was left atop the leaderboard after twenty kilometers?
Martin Fourcade of France, that’s who. Last year’s third-place finisher in the overall World Cup and World Championships pursuit victor missed just one shot – and on a day when not a single competitor went clean, he won by almost two minutes.
Fourcade came into the final shooting stage with Dominik Landertinger of Austria. Neither man had made a mistake, but while Fourcade held the lead, shooting errors could change everything.
“I knew that if I shot clean in the last stage, I could win,” Fourcade told IBU News. “But it is not good to think like that and I missed one shot.”
It had to have been a nervous moments, but the Frenchman still came out on top. Landertinger faltered in a bigger way, missing two shots to Fourcade’s one. The Austrian ended up fourth place, just three seconds off the podium.
Fourcade, meanwhile, skied through to the finish with a massive cushion. Michal Slesingr of the Czech Republic and Simon Schempp of Germany joined him on the podium, separated by just 0.2 seconds after each missing one shot.
While many favorites had missed early on, two Americans followed different trajectories over the 20 kilometers. Lowell Bailey had shot clean coming into the last standing stage, and even though he ended up missing two shots, he still came away with a ninth-place finish, tying his career best.
“All I can say is that I had a split bullet on the first shot and threw the next one wide on the left,” Bailey wrote in an e-mail. “It all happens so quickly. One minute you’re fighting for the podium, and a few seconds later you’ve just added two minutes to your course time! I was happy to come back and hit the last three targets. Of course every biathlete hopes to clean every race, but I am satisfied with the way things went today.”
Bailey’s previous best was ninth place at the World Cup in Fort Kent, Maine this winter, which was lightly attended compared to these opening races. He found his quick start to be particularly gratifying since he hasn’t always been so lucky.
“I had solid, uninterrupted training going into this race so I felt as prepared as I could be,” he explained. “The last couple of years, I’ve struggled in the beginning of the season with nagging sicknesses that kept me from following through training in this critical part of the season.
“I am really happy with the way things went to day- it’s a good feeling to start the season tying a career best!”
After just two loops of clean shooting, Bailey had the second-fastest cumulative time. With another clean round, he stayed in podium position with third-best. But even before arriving at that last shooting stage, the wheels had begun to come off; Bailey’s skiing dropped to the 83rd-fastest time for the loop. After missing two shots, he maintained ninth place to the finish.
“I felt pretty good out of the start and for the first few loops,” Bailey wrote. “[But] I definitely felt more and more fatigued towards the end of the race… my fourth loop was a little off the pace.”
With a layer of wet snow falling on top of the groomed trails this morning, it could have also been that Bailey – like other World Cup racers – was thrown off by the slow, difficult conditions compared to the faster, icy snow they had been training for the last week or more.
Teammate Jay Hakkinen went through a similar rollercoaster of emotions; after two loops and clean shooting, he was ranked fifth. But he missed one shot in each of his last stages and after tiring on his skis skipped from seventeenth to eighteenth on the final lap of the course. Still, it was his best result since the 2008-2009 season.
“It was a really good start to the World Cup season by collecting World Cup points,” Hakkinen wrote in an e-mail.
It couldn’t be a more different start then last year, when Hakkinen didn’t even make it onto the World Cup squad until halfway through the season.
“After working very hard to prepare for the season, I am glad to see things are going according to plan,” Hakkinen said. “90% shooting is quite solid. I just need to keep doing the same disciplined training and then the shots I missed today will be hit in the next race.”
U.S. Head Coach Per Nilsson enjoyed the day’s racing, writing “That was fun!” in an e-mail.
“Lowell and Jay had a solid race in skiing and shooting” he said. “That was a great season opener for them even if it was not a perfect race. It gives us great optimism for the future also.”
The other two U.S. starters, Tim Burke and Leif Nordgren, didn’t fare so well. The pair missed five and four shots to finish 58th and 64th, over six minutes behind Fourcade. Nilsson said that men had been sick and were still not in top race condition.
“The first race after being sick really hurts! Looking forward to feeling better this weekend,” Burke tweeted.
Still, Nilsson was enthusiastic.
“Tim still ranked 27th in the course time. And Leif had a good second half of the race,” he wrote. “We are looking forward to the race tomorrow and for the rest of this trimester.”
The Canadian team only saw one bright spot in today’s results, but what a spot it was: JP Leguellec finished 14th with two penalties. Unlike Hakkinen and Bailey, he actually got stronger as the race went on, missing a shot in each of his middle stages and then cleaning the last one.
The result isn’t a breakthrough for Leguellec – he has ten even better international results for his name, including sixth place in the sprint at the Vancouver Olympics – but like Bailey and Hakkinen, he said that it was a relief to start of the season on the right foot.
“I focused hard on my training this summer and everything indicated that I was in good shape, but without racing, it is so hard to measure where you are at because there is no indicator,” he said in a Biathlon Canada press release.
Now, he has that indicator, and he hopes that it’s just a starting point for the 2012 season.
“I believe the podium is the next step and today clean shooting would have put me in second place,” Leguellec said. “Aiming for the podium there is no margin for error. I have to do the same things in the sprint on Friday that I did today – strong skiing and clean shooting.”
Leguellec’s teammates had universally tough days – Scott Perras and Brendan Green missed four shots to place 68th and 72nd. In his first-ever World Cup start, Scott Gow – who just turned 21 – missed four shots as well and placed 101st.
World Cup action continues tomorrow with the women’s 15 k individual.