Coming into today’s 15 k mass start in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, Martin Fourcade of France seemed to be unstoppable.
At World Championships in Ruhpolding Germany a week ago, Fourcade had won the final race, a mass start, by overpowering a better-shooting Bjorn Ferry of Sweden. Then in the sprint here in Khanty-Mansiysk he eked out a 5-second victory, which he parlayed into a more sizable win in the pursuit. Those wins clinched the overall World Cup title for the Frenchman.
“I think it would have been really difficult to beat Martin today even with clean shooting,” second-place Arnd Peiffer of Germany said at the time.
It seemed likely that the mass start would be a victory lap for the dominant Frenchman. But if his competitors couldn’t stop him under normal circumstances, something else could: the wind. And instead of seeing yet another Fourcade victory, fans saw Emil Hegle Svendsen, who had been hoping to use this weekend to take back the total score lead from Fourcade, have the last laugh with a win of his own.
The wind was a factor throughout the race, but began to make itself a major nuisance in the first standing stage. Anton Shipulin of Russia led into the range, followed by teammate Dmitry Malyshko, Andriy Deryzemlya of Ukraine, and Florian Graf of Germany. Despite trying to be careful – the men would sometimes wait second upon second for the wind to die down, which is an unusual sight in a race – all four missed at least two shots.
Only four men in the entire field cleaned the third stage. The first was Svendsen, who moved into the lead with a 20-second gap to Sweden’s Carl Johan Bergman, who had been near the front and only missed one shot. Another was Fourcade, who had missed three shots in the prone stages but was now thirty seconds behind Svendsen in third. American Tim Burke also cleaned and was in a chase group only 15 or so seconds behind Bergman.
When Svendsen entered the range for the final shoot, it seemed like maybe the worst was over. He shot slowly, but not too slowly, and missed a single shot. The Norwegian coaches on the range appeared unconcerned; even with a penalty loop, and even if the chasers shot clean, Svendsen’s lead was big enough that he could at least be in contention for the win.
They were right not to worry. Svendsen didn’t see another racer until he had crossed the finish line.
Fourcade, Arnd Peiffer of Germany, Michal Slesingr of the Czech Republic, Bergman, and Burke were next to pull into the range and settle into their stances. The wind flags were blowing back and forth, foreshadowing the disaster to come.
Sleisingr fired the first shot, and hit his target. Fourcade fired next, and missed. Peiffer also missed his first shot. Then Slesingr took his second, and missed. Fourcade hit his second, but after doing so actually took a step closer to the edge of his mat, and the targets, and resettled. At this point Bergman hadn’t even shot yet.
Svendsen left the penalty loop – he was safe.
“It was nice to win today, and it was nice not to have to go to the basement on the final loop,” Svendsen later told broadcaster NRK.
When all was said and done, Shipulin – who had clawed his way back from his previous penalties and was hovering around tenth – was the first to clean, and left with the lead. Peiffer hit his remaining targets and left with a single penalty loop. The others were less fortunate: Bergman, when he finally finished shooting an eternity later, had two misses, Slesingr and Fourcade three. Burke and the man behind him, Daniel Mesotitsch of Austria, missed four.
“I was incredibly unlucky during this stage with the wind, it was blowing harder than we have seen here all week,” Burke told FasterSkier. “The others who I was shooting with at the time also struggled with three or four penalties. Unfortunately, this is part of biathlon.”
Whether Svendsen read and timed his shots better than the chasers, or whether he was simply lucky and the wind was slightly less severe 20 seconds earlier is unclear. But regardless, a whole section of the field had been wiped out of contention – and after Burke and his peers headed for the penalty loop, conditions improved. Later racers, like Andreas Birnbacher of Germany, who had been around 14th, Malyshko, Lukas Hofer of Italy, and Timofey Lapshin of Russia, were able to clean and move into the top eight.
Svendsen had a 30-second lead, and Shipulin hit the trails 20 seconds ahead of Peiffer. It seemed like the race was over. But it wasn’t.
Shipulin was obviously tired, and at several points began double-poling down hills. He didn’t lose even a second on Svendsen, but Svendsen also wasn’t pushing too hard – he had too large of a lead.
Peiffer, however, was giving it everything he had. After a frustrating World Championships, he somehow had the sense that he could match his second-place finish from the pursuit. A kilometer after leaving the range, Peiffer had cut the Russian’s lead from 20 seconds to just five. A couple hundred meters later, he was on Shipulin’s heels.
Peiffer saved his theatrics for a place where the fans could appreciate them – the stadium. As Svendsen skated across the line with his country’s flag a few hundred meters ahead, the German exploded past Shipulin on the final uphill, rounded the corner into view slightly ahead of the Russian, and put seven seconds in before crossing the line.
“He was really tired when we went out on the last loop, but I waited until that last hill to attack,” Peiffer said in the postrace press conference. “This has been a great end to my season.”
Birnbacher took fourth, just four seconds behind Shipulin, and Graf fifth two seconds later. It was the kind of race the Germans had been hoping for on home turf at World Championships, but this would have to do.
For Svendsen, the 2010 overall World Cup champion, the win was great – but it was ironic that it came because of his shooting. He had been disappointed in his performance on the range all year, which left him chasing Fourcade in the total score.
“It was a hard year,” he said. “This is the first time I have ever raced every single race. But I made too many mistakes on the shooting range. Next year, I will work on my shooting more and come back stronger, hopefully sitting here as the winner of the total score.”
While the total score was already decided, several other honors were also awarded today. Birnbacher received the crystal globe signifying the leader of the mass start discipline score, while Russia eked out a slight victory over France in the Nations Cup standings.
The U.S. improved to ninth in those rankings – last year the men were 12th – but both Burke, who finished 22nd, and Lowell Bailey, who struggled early and placed 24th, were understandably focused on their disappointing races today.
“This was a very frustrating way to end the season,” Burke said. “I was fighting for a podium finish until the last shooting… Now I am just looking forward to going home and relaxing. I raced 30 times this year and I am in serious need of a break!”
“Today was a tough start,” Bailey said of his race. “I fell in the opening 200 meters and that really put me a ways back from the field right of the bat. Then I had three misses in the first prone which put me even further back.”
While it would have been easy to be discouraged, Bailey fought gamely, picking up only one more penalty – a decent showing on a day when several competitors had seven or eight. And his perseverance had big rewards.
“From then on, the race went better and I was able to claw my way back up to 24th,” he said. “It turns out that it was pretty important for me to get those extra World Cup points. I ended up squeaking ahead of Bjorn Ferry in the overall World Cup score to finish the season at 14th!”
No Canadians qualified for the mass start.