“Sometimes you go down in order to go higher.”
That’s what Martin Fourcade, the defending biathlon World Cup champion from France, told FasterSkier after finishing 48th in a cross-country World Cup race on Saturday.
He had finished more than a minute and a half behind Norwegian winner Martin Johnsrud Sundby in the men’s 15 k freestyle in Gällivare, Sweden. Not exactly what he’d hoped for, but he picked himself up and sat out Sunday’s mixed relay – the first official biathlon World Cup race of the season – to prepare for Wednesday.
This time last year in Östersund, Sweden, Fourcade won the men’s 20-kilometer individual start by nearly two minutes. How do you top that?
For starters, he’d have to win the first World Cup of the season again in the same place. And sometimes a closer race with a flair for the dramatic is more interesting anyways.
As the crowd “oohed” and “ahhed” over several favorites as they entered the range, Fourcade gave them something to gasp about. After missing just one shot on the first standing stage, he paused his typical rapid fire before his last shot on the fourth and final stage. One breath and then he executed, shooting 19-for-20 and finishing with a time of 50:44.7.
After starting near the front of the pack in bib 15, Fourcade waited near the finish for a several minutes as other top contenders rolled through. In the end, the effort was good enough with the next-closest finisher Dominik Landertinger of Austria placing second, 12.3 seconds back. It wasn’t the 1:54.3-minute margin Fourcade won by last year over Michal Slesingr (CZE), but he’d take it.
After two cross-country races in the last 10 days (the first of which he placed sixth in a FIS 15 k skate race, just 25 seconds behind Norwegian winner Petter Northug in Beitostolen, Norway), Fourcade said he was not his best shape. He took that into account Wednesday.
“I was able to shoot slowly today and not push so hard on the tracks,” Fourcade told IBU reporters on Wednesday. “I was confident with my shooting today.”
“I had some bad moments after the cross-country. I did not shoot and was tired,” he added. “I am a better athlete than last year. I was not so fast on the skis, but I was a better biathlete today with shooting and skiing.”
The runner-up with one missed shot on the second stage as well, Landertinger came on strong toward the finish, rising from 22nd to seventh between the second and third loops. After the fourth loop with one more to go, he ranked third and shot clean to bump an earlier finisher, Emil Hegle Svendsen (NOR), down to at least third. Starting nearly 40 bibs later, Germany’s Erik Lesser continued to pick off his competitors and shot clean to finish a career-best third, 21.7 seconds behind Fourcade.
After collapsing at the finish, Lesser seemed a bit shocked about his result.
“Top twenty was my goal, but this is better,” he told reporters. “I am just a small guy from Germany who made it to the podium. … I knew I had to be good on the shooting range, so on the last standing I tried to be cool like Martin and Landi and shot zero.”
Svendsen placed fourth (+37.1) with two penalties – amounting for a total loss of two minutes – and Russia’s Evgeny Ustyugov was fifth with two penalties (+1:01.3). Ustyugov initially led out of the first prone stage, but Svendsen followed him into the range and shot clean to capture the lead. Meanwhile, Fourcade was just a second back.
In the first standing stage, Carl Johan Bergman (SWE) continued his clean-shooting streak, and Fourcade dropped to 15th. Svendsen suffered a big blow when he missed twice and was dealt two minutes of penalties, while Ondrej Moravec (CZE) cruised through three clean stages before missing two shots on the last. He ended up 14th and Bergman missed three shots between the last two stages to place 18th.
Fans cheered loudly as late starter Austrian Fritz Pinter entered the stadium to place sixth with one penalty (+1:06.1), and Erlend Bjoentegaard (NOR) and Krasimir Anev (BUL) placed seventh and eighth, respectively, with one miss apiece. Russia’s Anton Shipulin had three penalties yet pulled off ninth, and Jarkko Kauppinen (FIN) shot clean for 10th.
Perras Leads North Americans
Canadian Scott Perras had the best result among North Americans, finishing 32nd (+3:04) with two penalties on the first and second standing stages. The performance ranked among the top of his career in individual races, rivaling a 31st he tallied two seasons ago at a 20 k in Pokljuka, Slovenia. At one point, he was 27th after the third loop on Wednesday, but a final penalty minute cost him.
Perras had hoped for a top 30 going into the race, he explained in an email. “I enjoy the challenge of the Individual race and there are only two more this season,” he wrote. “I hope that I can start these and collect something a little more sizeable than 9 WC points. I am not satisfied with the skiing but feel it will improve as the season progresses.”
He was happy with his shooting so far this year after having worked hard to improve it.
“I love the moment when you enter the range with good shooting up to that point, this is where the next big challenge is in a race,” Perras wrote. “It’s what we train for. I executed well but left one target standing, more training and those type of experiences will be what allows me to perform on demand in moments like that.”
Trailing Perras by 2.7 seconds in 33rd, Tim Burke (USA) appeared to be running in fifth after cleaning the final shooting stage. However, after starting early in bib No. 8, his fourth-place rank at the finish gradually slipped away. He shot 17-for-20 with two misses on the first standing stage and another on the second prone, adding three minutes to his time for a cumulative of 3:06.7 seconds behind Fourcade.
“Going into today I had zero expectations,” Burke wrote in an email. “I have been sick for the majority of our pre season camp here in Sweden so I have not been able to do any hard training. I had no idea how my body would react for this hard effort so I was actually pretty happy with my skiing.”
He came down with a chest cold soon after arriving in Sweden two weeks ago. On Wednesday, he explained he was finally feeling better and his cough was going away. Considering the circumstances, he felt like he had a decent race “except for my shooting times,” he wrote.
“In the last standing I jammed a round and had to come out of position to load the rifle. With the times so close today, I could not afford this mistake,” Burke explained. “Going into this weekend, I am confident that the skiing will only get better so I am definitely hopeful for a good result in the sprint.”
U.S. teammate Lowell Bailey placed 37th with three penalties – one on each of the last three stages – and was 3:14.4 back. After placing ninth in the 20 k individual race there last year, he wrote in an email that he tried to forgo expectations and had planned to approach the season “less aggressively this year, with the hopes of increasing the ski speed as the season progresses.
Of the Americans, Jay Hakkinen tied for 63rd with one penalty (+5:12.1), Leif Nordgren had four penalties for 75th and Russell Currier was 89th with eight misses.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.