In just a few hours, Martin Fourcade of France will hit the tracks in Östersund, Sweden, for his first World Cup biathlon race of the season. In the 20 k individual, he is certainly among the favorites: not only did he win this very race last year by almost two minutes, but he went on to win the overall World Cup title as well as three individual World Championships to go with his one from 2011.
But despite skipping the relay on Sunday that opened the season for most of the rest of the field, Fourcade already has a World Cup race under his belt. He represented France in the 15 k individual cross country race further north in Gällivare, Sweden, on Saturday, where he placed 48th.
“I didn’t know what kind of result I could expect, but it was a good goal and a good idea for me to compete in a cross country race,” he told FasterSkier after the race. “I’m not satisfied of the result and I think it’s not my real level. But sometimes you go down in order to go higher.”
Expectations were certainly for a performance more impressive than the one he turned in; Fourcade competed in his first cross country race the weekend before in Beitostolen, Norway, where he placed sixth in a 15 k skate. There, Fourcade was 25 seconds behind Norwegian winner Petter Northug, and 20 back from Maurice Manificat, the top Frenchman who placed second.
In Gällivare, Fourcade struggled, finishing over a minute and a half behind the winner, this time Northug’s teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby.
“It was really hard today,” said Fourcade. “Last week I did a good race in Beitostolen. In my mind, I was in great shape, so I was hoping to do great today but I had a different day today. I did the first lap of the race very well and with no problems.”
In fact, Fourcade had a great start – at 2.3 kilometers he was in fourth place, and at 6.9 skiing within the top ten. But the wheels came off and the World Champion unceremoniously limped to the finish, crossing the line without any of the fanfare that usually accompanies his performances.
Rather than chalking it up to an inability to ski well in straight cross country races, Fourcade said it simply wasn’t his day, perhaps due to how his training is changing as he prepares for the actual biathlon season. (He wasn’t alone: World Champion Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland also had what she called her worst race in years, despite dominating in a FIS classic race in Finland just a week before.)
“Today I think in biathlon it would have been the same, others would have been in front of me in the ski time,” Fourcade said. “I’m sure many of the Swedish biathletes would have been ahead of me. Last week I showed my value more, and I hope to come back to do it again. But also last week, Petter Northug won the 15 k, and did very badly in the classic race. That’s skiing, and that’s life… this was one of my first cross country races, so I’m glad of the experience and sad of the result, but I’m not going to cry today because I’m fortieth or more, instead I will try to come back and to do better.”
Nevertheless, Fourcade said the fact that it was a ski race and not a biathlon race didn’t help him out in any way – although probably not for the reasons you might think, that in biathlon races athletes get to stop and even lie down. The physical rest in a biathlon race, he said, made a difference, but not too much.
As FasterSkier has discussed before, biathletes actually shoot with a very high heart rate, nowhere near resting or even the “recovery” level reached in between intervals in a training session. According to the statistics blog Real Biathlon, Fourcade spends on average 33.4 seconds on the mat in a prone shooting stage and just 25.8 in standing, counting the time taking his rifle off and getting in position. That’s not even the quickest in the field; Norwegian star Tora Berger is not only one of the fastest standing shooters of either sex, taking just 24 seconds, but also one of the most accurate women, usually nailing all five targets. Such speed, coming as it does with intense concentration, allows some recovery, but not much.
More important in a biathlon race, Fourcade said, was the ability to mentally hit the “reset” button, something he struggled with in Gällivare once his body began to complain.
“It is not very different, but it is longer that you have to push all the time,” he said of ski racing. “When you are not in a good mindset, you can stop and try a new race in biathlon. But here if the shape is not good, you don’t have a chance to start over.”
Fourcade still finished as the fourth member of the French team, keeping alive a hope that he stated this fall: to compete for France in the relay at FIS World Championships. His race in Gällivare certainly didn’t secure him a spot, but to remain in the running despite an undeniably bad day leaves the possibility open, if he can prove that he’s faster than Saturday’s result.
“This was one of my first cross country races, so I’m glad of the experience and sad of the result, but I’m not going to cry today because I’m fortieth or more, instead I will try to come back and to do better,” he said. “This was not my best race and [to make the relay] I need to come back and show that I am beyond the best.”
When asked by a Swedish journalist how he would make his schedule work with both IBU and FIS World Championships, Fourcade said he could not choose between the two and would try to participate in both if given the chance.
And he hopes that he will. He certainly wouldn’t be the first biathlete to do so, or to find success in skiing; Norwegians Ole Einar Bjørndalen and Lars Berger have won World Cup and World Championships individual races, and Fourcade routinely trounces them in biathlon competition.
“I don’t feel like biathletes have to show their value to cross country skiers,” Fourcade concluded.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.