RUHPOLDING, Germany – Martin Fourcade is a glutton for punishment.
At every chance he got, the Frenchman would push the pace over the top of the last steep hill during today’s World Championship 15 k mass start. As the rain gently fell on the Chiemgau Arena and competitors looked more and more bedraggled, Fourcade attacked again and again, jump-skating up hill after hill, and dragging himself back from penalties that may have come from pushing too hard.
But Fourcade is also a glutton for gold, and in the end he was rewarded with his third individual victory of the week in four races – a truly unusual feat in a sport which is decided by millimeters on the range.
“I have always said that I didn’t fight for records, but today I know that my performance during the World Championships was big,” Fourcade said in a press conference.
Fourcade said that he had never doubted his shape, which undoubtedly made it easier to hammer up the punishing hills loop after loop. Beginning with the very first loop, he sped up on that last hill to put a gap on the field before descending down into the stadium and onto the shooting range. That time, it worked out: Fourcade cleaned the initial prone stage and left the range in the lead.
On the second loop, Fourcade tried the same move, but this time he picked up a penalty – whether from pushing too hard or simply because conditions are difficult, is hard to say. Fourcade, who had already won two gold medals in the sprint and pursuit as well as silver in the men’s relay, fell to 14th.
But, setting a furious pace, Fourcade pushed himself to the max one more time, gradually clawing his way through the field. An attack on that same final hill brought him back into contact with the leaders, and he was in fourth place when he pulled into the range the for his first standing bout.
Again, Fourcade missed a shot. Andreas Birnbacher of Germany cleaned and left with a seven-second lead over Bjorn Ferry of Sweden and Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic.
This time, though, much of the field hit the penalty loop, which began to resemble a merry-go-round of colorful race suits. Even though he had two misses so, Fourcade was still very much in the race, and hit the trails 23 seconds behind Birnbacher.
The German’s success had led to wild cheering from the 30,000 fans in attendance, and for the first part of the loop, he skied alone. But by the time the field came to the final standing stage, nobody was safe.
Fourcade later admitted that he was intimidated by the until-then clean-shooting Birnbacher, who wore the red bib as the leader of the World Cup mass start standings.
“I didn’t think about it before, but during the competition Andreas was very strong and he could win today with zero penalties,” Fourcade said.
For the local hero, who grew up 30 kilometers from Ruhpolding, clean shooting was not to be. Birnbacher missed a shot and was forced to hit the penalty loop. While he skied his extra 150 meters, both Ferry and Fourcade cleaned; Ferry had a slight lead on the Frenchman as they climed the first hill out of the range.
With the prowess that Fourcade had shown both already today and throughout the championships, it seemed impossible that Ferry could hold his lead. Through the first half of the loop, though, he tucked in behind Fourcade and the two skied together.
The pace wasn’t light, either: a group, including Birnbacher, had left the range just five seconds behind the leaders, and playing a cat-and-mouse game with one another could easily have left both Ferry and Fourcade medal-less.
“It was not the same position that I was in with Carl Johan [Bergman] earlier this week, because there were five hungry boys trying to catch us,” Fourcade said of the final loop. “I had to push really hard to win either gold or silver. It was my only aim from the last stage, to be first or second.”
The first half of the course rolled up and down, and the 6’ 6” Ferry could use his power to hang with Fourcade. But unsurprisingly, once the pair hit the course’s major climbs with a kilometer to go, Fourcade broke into the jump skate that he had used to such effect before, and Ferry could not keep up.
“I did my best and I saw that I was a bit stronger than Bjorn on the last uphill,” Fourcade said. “But he was close to me and I never stopped pushing.”
Ferry popped, but he didn’t fall too far behind – like Fourcade, he knew that if he slowed down even one bit, he would be swallowed by the chase pack of teammated Fredrik Lindstrom and Carl Johan Bergman, Fourcade’s brother Simon, and Birnbacher.
That seemed like a real possibility, and although gold was locked up, the stadium full of mostly German fans nervously watched the final meters tick away, hoping that Birnbacher could win silver or at least bronze.
Ferry, however, hung on, and coming over the top of Fourcade’s favorite hill, Lindstrom opened a small lead.
Lindstrom, who at 22 years of age has won a single World Cup and has no other podiums, said in the press conference that he had not been expecting to find himself in the lead pack, and didn’t even realize that he was.
“I didn’t know what position I was out on the final loop,” he admitted. “But I was coached by our trainers and heard I was in fifth place, and realized that the bronze medal was just two meters ahead of me. It was a perfect final loop for me. In the uphill I tried with all I had and it was enough to be a bronze medalist.”
Birnbacher finished a close fourth – his second wooden medal of the championships. Simon Fourcade was fifth and Bergman sixth, giving Sweden not only two on the podium but half of the top six.
It was an amazing result for the team, which despite Bergman’s two medals earlier this week struggled in the relay and placed a dismal 16th. They are reeling, too, from the announcement that the star of their women’s team, Helena Ekholm, will retire at the end of this season.
Today, though, the men’s team had nothing to worry about.
For Ferry, the result was a return to the form that won him Olympic gold in Vancouver, but which had so far eluded him this season – and it was a relief.
“I shot clean today, the shape I have this year – I know that I have to hit all the targets or else I have no chance,” Ferry said. “You see the result list and if I miss one shot then I am number ten, so it has been really tough.”
But as thrilled as the Swedish team was, the day was clearly all about Fourcade.
“I said before the Championships that he would be the king of the Championships,” Ferry said of the gold medalis. “I want to see him in cross country also, I think he would have a chance against Northug and the kings. He is really strong.”
“And today he won the Swedish championship,” Lindstrom joked.
There were no joked from the man himself, who was simply overcome by his good results.
“It is more than I can expect in my life,” he said. “It’s only wonderful.”
– Benjamin Weger of Switzerland, currently ranked in the top ten in the overall World Cup standings, perhaps had the worst day of anyone. After missing a shot in the initial prone stage, he left the range in 25th with some ground to make up. But First he broke a ski, and a coach had to bring another out onto the course for him to clip into; then he fell and broke a pole. Trailing the 29th-place racer by a huge margin, Weger withdrew before making it to the second stage.
– The Czechs, on the other hand, had a good day. While no individual result made huge fireworks, the team had placed three men in the field of 30, which is unusual. Jaroslav Soukup, Michal Slesingr, and Ongrej Moravec finished 11th, 12th, and 13th, within a minute of Fourcade.
– Andriy Derezemlya of Ukraine only received a start due to the withdrawal of Jakov Fak of Slovenia. The 34-year-old four-time Olympian has been competing in World Championships since 1997; he won a World Cup in the 2004/5 season and has seven podiums to his name, but hasn’t had a great 2012. Today, though, he placed 19th.
– Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey placed 23rd and 25th for the U.S. after missing four and five shots. Stay tuned for an interview with Bailey.
– No Canadians qualified for the race, although JP Le Guellec was next in line after Derezemlya.