RUHPOLDING, Germany – Going into today’s men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay, the field was wide open.
France, with double gold medalist Martin Fourcade and silver medalist brother Simon Fourcade, was a prerace favorite. But last year’s top two teams, Norway and Russia, hadn’t dominated in the individual races, and neither had host country Germany.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s Carl Johan Bergman had won two medals, and three Swedes had finished in the top ten. Slovenia and the Czech Republic had each put one man on the podium and two in the top ten in the 20 k on Tuesday. Any of these six teams were expected to contend for the win, with a handful more having realistic chances for a medal.
But after eight shooting bouts and 30 kilometers of racing, there were no outsiders to be seen: World Cup leaders Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway and Martin Fourcade of France wound up battling it out for the gold.
In the end, Svendsen won the psychological battle that the two have so often waged against one another, shooting clean with no spare rounds while Fourcade used five. That gave Norway a 29-second victory, and their second relay gold of these Championships.
“This victory is really important,” Svendsen said after the race. “There have been a lot of critics in the last few days. We could show that we are still great at biathlon and that we can still win.”
From the very start, things didn’t work out so well for the underdogs.
Klemen Bauer led things off for Slovenia. He had been on his country’s silver-medal mixed relay team to kick off the Championships, and then finished fifth in the 20 k individual that his teammate Jakov Fak won. But he wasn’t expecting to repeat those performances today.
“Even though we had those results, we didn’t feel any pressure – Jakov was not going to start today, and he was the strongest member, and the other two don’t feel quite well today,” Bauer told FasterSkier in an interview after he finished. “So our goal was just to leave the shooting range without a penalty loop, and then it doesn’t matter what the result will be.”
They didn’t quite do it – anchor Peter Dokl did hit the penalty loop, but even before that the team wasn’t excelling. They finished 14th. The Czechs, another team that was hoping for a Cinderella medal, placed ninth after second leg Zdenek Vitek disintegrated on the range and skied three penalty loops after the standing stage.
And the Swedes? Carl Johan Bergman had flown back from Norway, where his wife gave birth earlier this week, just for this race. But leadoff skier Ted Armgren skied three penalty loops and left the team in 28th place; Olympic gold medalist Bjorn Ferry was only able to gain three spots, and Bergman received the tag in 25th.
“I did a speedy race today and I am very satisfied with my shooting,” Bergman tersely told reporters. “I am looking forward to the mass start on Sunday.”
And so it was left to the heavyweights to vie for the win.
Things didn’t seem so great for Norway at the start, either. Veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen was in the lead after the prone stage, but then melted down in standing, using all three spares and then skiing a penalty loop.
In the postrace press conference, he was asked what went wrong.
“Nothing,” he replied with a straight face.
But then he laughed, capitulating.
“It was not a good feeling, I was moving a lot on the shooting range, and had no control today,” he said.
Bjørndalen tagged off in 13th to Rune Brattsveen, who was skiing just his second World Championships and the first since 2008. Brattsveen used two spare rounds in standing, but otherwise delivered the best performance the Norwegians could have hoped for. He skied the fastest course time and pulled the team into fifth place.
“The three other guys on the team are very strong, so I feel maybe a little more pressure, but I tried to just put that aside and do my best,” he said. “I was hoping for more, but sometimes I miss, so you have to make the best of every situation. So today I had to fight all the way.”
Brattsveen tagged to Tarjei Bø just 34 seconds behind Simon Fourcade, who was leading the race. The French didn’t face as many challenges as the Norwegians had: in his first World Championships, Jean Guillaume Beatrix – who like Brattsveen said he felt incredible pressure knowing that his team was a favorite and his teammates were among the best – tagged off to Fourcade in third place.
Germany, Russia, and Switzerland stood between Bø and French third-leg skier Alexis Boeuf, but that didn’t stop him for long. A single spare round in prone helped him leapfrog past Switzerland, and then Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev skied a penalty loop in standing, removing the team from contention for the rest of the race.
“The first round I tried to go very hard, to get an attack in my body, so that I am attacking all the way – the start is very important,” Bø said of his effort. “The second round I went a little bit slower to have good legs on the standing shooting. But I had to save some energy for the last attack on the last uphills.”
That energy spurred him past German legend Michael Greis, who shot well enough to move into second after standing, but after having foot surgery this summer and sitting out much of the season couldn’t cut it on the trails compared to Bø. Greis tried gamely, spurred on by the thousands of cheering German fans, but tagged off in third, eight seconds behind Bø; Boeuf had used a single spare and maintained the lead for France.
That left Martin Fourcade, Svendsen, and Arnd Peiffer of Germany to vie for the win. The 18-second lead that Fourcade had been handed was enough to ensure a victory with clean shooting – Fourcade and Svendsen are usually evenly matched on skis – but after Fourcade had missed five targets in the individual, clean shooting was certainly not a given.
The Frenchman used two spares in prone, which took exactly the amount of time that had separated him from Svendsen. The two hit the trails together for the umpteenth time.
Svendsen, too, hasn’t been shooting his best, all season; his victories have often come despite penalties, and he’s said that he’d like to regain the shooting prowess he’s shown in previous years. But today, he was calm and collected on the range, cleaning both stages with no spares.
Fourcade, who later said he was “disappointed” in his performance, had to use three in the final stage, and Svendsen left the range with an insurmountable lead.
“Although I know Martin is a really strong athlete, I managed to beat him today, and that was my goal,” said Svendsen. “So I am really happy to catch the gold for Norway.”
Svendsen hoped that the victory today would give him a psychological advantage over his rival heading into Sunday’s mass start, but he said he knew it wasn’t that simple – today’s relay was good practice for the pressure that comes in head-to-head competitions.
“I tried to stay really focused,” Svendsen said of the relay effort. “I knew that the relay is extremely hard with the pressure, and there is always a little bit more tension with the relay, so I felt that really good, but I managed to keep my nerves under control.”
The Germans were never able to advance out of third after Greis tagged off to Peiffer; the anchor used three spare rounds and finished 53 seconds down to Svendsen.
“I’m very happy that everything still works,” said Peiffer, who dropped the Germans from first to third in the mixed relay. “If you have Emil Hegle Svendsen beside you, it is a lot of stress. I’m satisfied with my race – bronze is great!”
Italy finished fourth, a minute and a half back; Austria was fifth and Russia sixth.