There were a lot of unusual things about the World Cup biathlon races in Hochfilzen, Austria on Saturday.
First, there was the inch of snow that fell during the men’s 12.5 k pursuit. Then, there was the fact that the field was incredibly compressed thanks to some strange weather in the original sprint race.
“The snow storm that stopped [mid-race on Thursday] had a bigger effect than I expected,” U.S. biathlete Jay Hakkinen told FasterSkier.
What Hakkinen (and others) hadn’t considered was the effect of setting up a pursuit where all 61 starters broke the wand in the space of two minutes.
While cross-country race organizers can put as many skiers as they want in a mass start, it’s more complicated in biathlon due to the fact that there are only 30 points on a shooting range. In mass start racing, only 30 athletes get to start; in pursuits, which are seeded off of 10 k sprint races, 60 racers get the honors with the assumption that time gaps will prevent bottlenecking at the range.
But in today’s pursuit, with so many starters so close together, things were a bit different. The race was essentially turned into a mass start with 60 racers.
Tactics were further complicated by the fact that fresh snow was accumulating on the trail, and nobody wanted to work outside of the single skied-in track in the middle. As a result, long, single-file lines of closely-packed skiers snaked around the winding, open course in Hochfilzen all day, and the points on the range filled continuously during the first prone stage. The penalty loop looked like a merry-go-round at full capacity.
“It was difficult today as only a small part of the track was fast, so it was hard to pass,” Norwegian veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen told the press.
But despite the close quarters and the potential stress on the range, there didn’t seem to be any problems. And for many, the mass-start feel created opportunity. The eventual winner, Andreas Birnbacher of Germany, started 26th. In a normal pursuit, that would have been minutes behind the leader, and he wouldn’t have had a chance. But today?
“With clean shooting and perfect skis, it happened,” Birnbacher said in a press conference, still in shock that he had moved through the entire field.
While Tarjei Bø of Norway and Martin Fourcade of France spent the first several loops out front, both missed shots in the third shooting stage, allowing a chase group of Simon Fourcade (Martin’s brother), Simon Eder of Austria, Birnbacher, and Bjørndalen to go by while they were stuck in the penalty loop.
Bø and Martin Fourcade soon caught up – they are two of the fastest, most aggressive skiers on the circuit – and the six men skied together, shuffling positions, for much of the fourth loop.
When they entered the range for the final time, the crowd held its breath. It is unusual for such a large group to be together so late in the race, and as a result the pressure to knock down targets was immense. For a few, it was too much, but Birnbacher, Bjørndalen, and Simon Fourcade were able to clean and sprint out of the stadium together to battle it out on the last loop.
It certainly wasn’t what anyone had expected from this race – Bjørndalen may be the “King of Biathlon”, but he hasn’t won a race yet this season, and started with bib 15. Birnbacher had been even further back, and Simon is the less successful of the Fourcade brothers. Spectators are used to seeing Martin at the front, but instead, Simon had led the race on and off for several kilometers.
By the time the men, led by Birnbacher, came down the final hill into the range, so many skiers had passed through single file that the trail looked like it had classic tracks. Even inside the tracks, it was slow; trailing skiers sometimes had to reach up and push the poles of the leaders to even out their speeds.
The crowd – waving flags and drinking beer as the snow piled up on their hats and shoulders – held their breath and watched the trio slingshot into the stadium. Bjørndalen made an aggressive move to draw even with the German; even despite his 92 World Cup wins, it’s always surprising to see such quick skiing from a 37-year-old. Fourcade trailed slightly, but the two leaders flailed through the powder to the line with amazing speed.
“Everything was coming together as we came to the finish,” Bjørndalen said later. “I tried in the last meter, but Andi was stronger.”
Part of the veteran’s problem may have been that the deep snow impeded his lunge to the line, and he ended up tangling and falling across the finish. But regardless of whether he would have made it on perfect corduroy, those weren’t the conditions in Hochfilzen, and Birnbacher came away with a 0.2-second victory, just the second of his career.
The racers collapsed into the inch of fresh powder, leaving snow angels behind when they finally stood up to face the cameras.
For Birnbacher, the win was especially meaningful as he is not considered the leader of his team.
“Simon [Schempp] or Arnd [Peiffer] could win on any day, but this was my day,” he said in the postrace press conference. “At our training camp in Muonio, all of us showed we were in good shape. I hope that I can maintain it and be in good shape for [World Championships in] Ruhpolding. It is very important, almost the only thing everyone was talking about all summer.”
Fourcade was similarly thrilled. He has watched his brother pick up several victories already this season, and didn’t think he’d find similar success.
“After the sprint, I thought I would never be on the podium ever again,” Fourcade said in the press conference. “That was the best race of my life, and I was sixth. It seems like something always happens to keep me from the podium.
“Today, I kept thinking that something would happen and I would not make it,” he continued. “I have waited two years [since my last podium] and am very happy now. I knew my shape was very good – now all I am looking forward to is being up here with my brother!”
Just 50 seconds after the leaders’ sprint to the line, Jean-Phillipe Le Guellec of Canada crossed in eighth place. And four seconds behind him, Hakkinen claimed ninth.
The pair had started with bibs 48 and 45, respectively, and were among the biggest movers in the field. They were also among only five men to clean all four stages of the race (Birnbacher and Bjørndalen were two of the others).
While each had finished in the top twenty so far this year, neither had reached the kinds of results they thought they were capable of. Le Guellec finished top-ten in the 2010 Olympics, while Hakkinen had a similar finish in the 2006 Games. For the last two seasons, they had said the same things after races: it was okay, but not what they were looking for.
Today, that changed.
“Today was a race I have known I am capable of but took awhile to accomplish,” Hakkinen wrote in an e-mail. “Skis were great, skiing was strong, and cleaning in both the sprint and pursuit [is something] I am quite proud of.”
Le Guellec, too, was relieved to get some confirmation that his previous results were not a fluke. He explained that a changed attitude had led to his improvement.
“I’ve been getting very anxious over the last few weekends and totally over analyzing everything,” Le Guellec said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “My motto this weekend was to just focus on skiing and shooting. Mentally I didn’t want to sweat the small stuff… I did that today and it took the pressure off.
“This gives me the confidence to know I can be there,” he concluded. “This was a great result and I’m very happy.”
Chris Lindsay, the High Performance Director for Biathlon Canada, confirmed that Le Guellec had been hard at work to achieve this result.
“Today was a clear indication of JP’s capacity,” he told FasterSkier. “It has taken a few races to shake out the bugs, but he has always had his sights on being back among the best in the world. JP has been carefully strengthening each weakness in his execution. This precision in training will inevitably lead to top ten results.”
It wasn’t just practice that returned Le Guellec to the top, Lindsay said, but also the talent of a young and improving Canadian team; Brendan Green, who finished 40th today, is currently ranked 33rd in the world and Le Guellec 36th.
“I really think he has been helped by having strength among the rest of the team,” Lindsay said. “And the rest of the team has been helped through his previous successes and his maturity as an athlete.”
For 34-year-old Hakkinen, who had not finished in the top ten since the 2008 season, shooting clean and netting the 22nd-fastest ski time of the day were a big deal, but there was an added bonus to his finish today.
“Now I am also ranked in the top 30 which means I have a chance to qualify for the mass start in Oberhof, which is a big motivational boost going into the Christmas break,” he said. “It feels good to be back in the top ten, so I am planning to keep improving on today’s result.”
With Lowell Bailey, who slipped from 21st to 25th on the back of four penalties, ranked ninth in the standings, the U.S. has a lot to be happy about. And Leif Nordgren, who had struggled through this first period of racing, finally had a strong race, missing a single shot and moving up from bib 49 to finish 33rd.
“I followed my plan and everything except for the last ski loop went well,” he wrote in an e-mail. It feels good to be back in the points! That’s where I expect myself to be in every race – I’m happy with the direction of both my skiing and my shooting, and it’s only a third of the way through the season so there is a lot of races left.”