When Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher left the shooting range for one more three-kilometer loop in Sunday’s mass start race, there was little doubt that he’d be beaten to the finish line.
Yes, Birnbacher was leading. And yes, he was wearing the red bib denoting that he led the discipline standings on the World Cup circuit. There was just one problem: Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway was right on his shoulder.
Just one day earlier, Svendsen had laid down a spectacular sprint in the final meters of the pursuit to secure second place, leaving Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev looking as if he was standing still. Svendsen knew, the spectators knew, and even Birnbacher knew – with a weapon like that in the Norwegian’s arsenal, Birnbacher didn’t stand a chance.
“I realized that I could not outsprint Emil,” Birnbacher said in a press conference after the race. Instead, he tried to protect at least a second-place finish: “I went as hard as I could so no one could come up from the back and take my spot on the podium.”
With Garanichev and teammate Dimitry Malyshko charging hard behind them, it was a smart move. Birnbacher led the way up the huge climb to the top of the course, down the winding descent, and up the excruciatingly steep Gratishaugen hill. As the pair approached the stadium, the noise became deafening as the crowd awaited the move that they knew was coming.
Anticipation mounting, Birnbacher and Svendsen tucked along the flat next to the ski jump, and began up the last, small climb behind the shooting range. Then, at the top of the climb just before a sharp right turn, it happened – Svendsen went.
“I knew I had him,” Svendsen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race.
And he did. Putting in a powerful burst, Svendsen left Birnbacher far behind and cruised to his first victory of the weekend and the 27th of his career, much to the delight of the crowd and of King Harald of Norway, who was on hand to watch the race. By the time he crossed the finish line just 250 meters later, Svendsen had six seconds on the German.
Now Birnbacher knows how Maxim Vylegzhanin, Petter Northug’s habitual foil, feels as he races towards defeat. Perhaps, too, he can talk to countryman Axel Teichmann about how to overcome the despair of being trailed by the world’s best sprinter; on Saturday, Svendsen told the press that he had carefully studied Northug’s moves from the 2011 World Championships in Oslo.
Despite missing out on another mass start win, Birnbacher was actually happy with his race. He said in the press conference that he hadn’t known whether to start or not because he’d been feeling sick.
“It was really a tough race for me, I was hit by something,” he told the German Zeit newspaper. “After the second lap I was beginning to think that I would have to quit because it seemed to be going so badly. But I decided against it.”
Birnbacher did have one thing he could lord over his Norwegian rival: clean shooting. In three mass start races so far this season, Birnbacher has missed only a single shot out of 60 taken, and his second-place finish today is his worst showing.
So while Svendsen may have won, but he can’t touch the German’s marksmanship.
“Birnbacher hit everything, so I had to work harder,” said Svendsen, who had two penalties. “After all, it’s been almost 700 days since I’ve hit all the targets in a race, and that’s something I’m not proud of.”
And clean shooting is important. Despite being without a doubt one of the fastest skiers on the circuit, Svendsen has won just three times this season; his first win, in a pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria, came, like today, despite having more penalties than his closest competitors.
Svendsen, who took over the World Cup lead, said he knew he had to shoot better. But today he was all smiles, raising both arms in victory as he crossed the finish line. His performance was rewarded with a meeting with King Harald himself, which Svendsen said made him “more nervous than shooting.”
While Svendsen had won three previous World Cup races at Holmenkollen, the king had never been in attendance. Today, that changed.
“I was so nervous that I don’t remember what we talked about,” Svendsen laughed after the meeting.
Garanichev dropped Malyshko to claim third place, wrapping up the best weekend of his career. After winning the sprint on Thursday, the young Russian picked up two bronze medals.
“Before the season, I thought I might be on the podium sometime this year,” he said in the press conference. “But I did not expect something like this. I am very happy about my results here.”