Kilometer after kilometer, Martin Foucade of France and Arnd Peiffer of Germany skied on and on, unable to break one another on the trails.
Starting today’s 12.5 k World Cup pursuit just five seconds apart, the pair were initially trailed by Sweden’s Fredrik Lindstrom, who finished third in Friday’s sprint. But after just one loop on the Khantiy-Mansiysk trails, Lindstrom missed a shot and lost his spot with the leaders. From then on, it was just Peiffer and Fourcade, dueling their way towards the finish.
It was a matchup that the Germans had hoped to see on home turf during last week’s World Championships in Ruhpolding, but they were denied – the German men didn’t win a single medal, and Peiffer in particular seemed to buckle under the weight of expectations, missing shots in the final stages of race after race.
“There is a big difference here in Khanty,” Peiffer said after today’s pursuit. “There is not so much stress. We had much pressure in Ruhpolding. We were very close to the medals sometimes, like in the individual and the mass start, but you need some luck too, and we didn’t have this luck in Ruhpolding.”
Today, luck was on his side. After cleaning the first stage, Peiffer and Fourcade skied on alone through the gently falling snow, chopping and plowing their way through the powder that refused to stay packed down. They came into the second stage with a lead and again both cleaned, Peiffer quickly and Fourcade more carefully; on the third loop, Peiffer was in the lead for the first time. At one point Fourcade appeared to be jockeying for a move, but as they re-entered the stadium they were skiing together easily, with Pieffer still first.
At that point, things got interesting. Fourcade shot faster and missed a target, while Peiffer, in a reversal, took his time and hit all five. He had more than a minute lead on the third-place racer, and so the battle came down to whether he could hold off the Frenchman.
Fourcade, the three-time World Champion from Ruhpolding and victor of yesterday’s sprint, isn’t one to be slowed down by a penalty. Over the next 2.5 kilometers he attacked. 800 meters later, he had cut Peiffer’s lead from 18 to 13 seconds. In another kilometer, it was down to nine seconds.
It seemed that Fourcade was trying not only to catch up, but to deliberately put pressure on Peiffer for that all-important last stage, where he had struggled so mightily in Ruhpolding. Fourcade had the German in his sights on the trail, and Peiffer could surely feel his presence approaching. By the time the pair reached the range, they were only separated by a few seconds. Fourcade had already settled in to his stance by the time Peiffer took his first shot.
Fourcade may have hurried to get in position, but it didn’t lead to errors. The two traded shots back and forth. Peiffer hit the first, then Fourcade. Peiffer hit the second, then Fourcade. Peiffer hit the third, then Fourcade.
And then – Peiffer missed.
Fourcade hit two more shots and, in a move that he’s shown before but nobody else has replicated, turned and pumped his fist at the crowd before gathering his poles and hitting the trails. Peiffer, meanwhile, was exiled to the penalty loop.
Neither skier let up in the final loop, and the gap was still roughly 20 seconds at the finish line. Fourcade, in another signature flourish, reached down to unbuckle his bindings as he crossed the finish line, then ran off into the snow while lifting his skis above him in victory.
“It was a really good race with Arnd,” Fourcade said in the postrace press conference. “We did a lot of the race together, and I knew that he is also very strong in Khanty, and I am proud to beat him today here. It was a really good fight and I enjoyed it all the way.”
Peiffer was similarly gracious.
“It was really nice to be on the podium again today, after Ruhpolding, since I did not reach the podium there,” he said. “I think it would have been really difficult to beat Martin today even with clean shooting. So I was happy to be in second place.”
Meanwhile, the fight for third shaped up to be surprisingly fierce. Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway left the range ten seconds ahead of Dmitry Malyshko of Russia, and was expected to lead all the way to the finish; he is one of the most fearsome skiers on the circuit, and until World Championships had been swapping wins back and forth with Fourcade.
But, as impossible as it seemed, Malyshko ate into Svendsen’s lead, and then ate into it some more. It wasn’t a position that Svendsen is exactly used to being in.
“It was really hard,” Svendsen said. “I first heard he was ten seconds behind, and I tried to push harder, and then it was six seconds behind, and I just ran for my life. Then I heard three seconds and it was like my worst nightmare.”
Somehow, Svendsen found another gear and was able to cross the line five seconds ahead of Malyshko.
“When I came to the finish, I went into the dressing cabins and sat there for ten minutes like this,” Svendsen said, putting his head in his hands. “I was so tired. It was a really hard race, but I’m happy to be on the podium again.”
With the victory, Fourcade clinched not only the pursuit title for this season – he’d already toped the sprint standings yesterday – but also the overall World Cup crown. He has a lead of almost 100 points over Svendsen, and a win is only worth 60. Svendsen and Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher are also safe to round out the top three.
“Nobody can expect it,” Fourcade said of his dominance this season, and particularly in the last few weeks. “I wrote yesterday on my website, before the sprint, that I didn’t know whether Emil or me would be the winner of the total score, but I will just remember that it was a really great sensation, and I just want to thank Emil and these other guys for giving this competition, as hard as it was. I’m really proud to win against the best biathlete of the last five years.
“I’m really happy now and I will enjoy the last race before the holidays,” Fourcade concluded.