ÖSTERSUND, Sweden – After placing a disappointing tenth in yesterday’s 10 k sprint, Martin Fourcade of France was seeking redemption – and to stay in the overall World Cup leaders bib that he had earned after winning Wednesday’s individual race.
Last year’s overall champion missed only a single one of his twenty shots in today’s 12.5 k pursuit, which put him on a trajectory towards the front. The penalty came in the second standing stage, dropping him to seventh place, 25 seconds back from Russia’s Evgeniy Ustyugov; after two clean stages, Fourcade had climbed to fourth.
“My strategy was to shoot slow and clean and I did it, but I was always a little bit behind,” Fourcade said in a press conference. “I tried to fight hard and get contact, but they were really fast as well, so I had to be always going hard, all through the race.”
After three stages Russia’s Evgeniy Ustyugov was solidly in control, leaving the range with an 18-second lead over Alexis Boeuf, Fourcade’s teammate who had placed second in the sprint. But Fourcade charged towards the front, regaining contact with Andreas Birnbacher of Germany and Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway, who were skiing in third.
In the final round, Ustyugov and Boeuf handed the chasers a huge favor when they collected two and one penalties, respectively. Suddenly, Birnbacher and Fourcade were leaving the range in the lead after both cleaning their targets. But others were close behind. The two decided to work together.
“After the shooting range I talked to Andi that we had to ski together on the beginning of the loop,” Fourcade said. “Andi did the first part of the loop and I did the last part. And then my strategy was to stay in the front position and keep Andi and make him ski more if he wanted to go by me. My strategy was good today and I think he will know it for next time.”
While Fourcade got the better end of the deal tactically, Birnbacher said in the press conference that the decision was about survival for him.
“On the last lap I was tired because in every round I thought I must go slower on the next round, and every round was fast for me!” he explained. “So I tried to get behind Martin so that nobody would come from behind. I knew that he is very strong and that it could be a hard sprint. On the last corner he was in front and it was very hard to go out and pass.”
Fourcade did do his best coming into the finishing lanes to prevent Birnbacher from passing; it was awkward to watch. Even as it was, the Frenchman only finished with a 0.7-second victory.
And what’s more, the chasers had actually gained ground on them. Arnd Peiffer of Germany had left the range 7.7 seconds behind, but crossed the finish line 4.1 seconds back; he lost a sprint with Anton Shipulin of Russia to end up fourth. Svendsen was just behind, unable to muster his usual finishing sprint, to place fifth.
Shipulin, for one, was surprised to make it so close to the front, especially after a bad sprint race that left him with bib 23, starting more than a minute out of the lead. Despite missing a shot, he was able to climb through the field rapidly. Leaving the final shooting stage with Svendsen, he thought he’d be satisfied to ski for fourth place.
“Honestly, I was thinking that it would be really great to have a fight with Emil on the last finish lane,” Shipulin said through a translator a the press conference. “I know that he’s very good at these. But it was a little different today. We didn’t expect that we would reach Peiffer, but we also reached him.”
In some ways, it was not surprising to see Birnbacher near the front; last season’s mass start champion, he is always strong in this type of head-to-head racing.
“I don’t know why exactly, but I like this kind of competition,” he said. “For shooting, it’s better for me to shoot between the others.”
But the podium also came as a huge relief to the German, who overtrained this summer and was unsure of what to expect this season.
“It was very important [to do well today] because I didn’t think before that I was in that good shape,” he said. “In autumn it was very hard for me, I was very tired because of the training. And now it’s getting better and better, so it’s good for me. I think I trained too much in the summer, and I slept all the time!”
Instead of being disappointed to lose the sprint finish with Fourcade, he was – at least publicly – happy with his finish.
“I won second place and not lost first place,” Birnbacher said.
As for Fourcade, he was tired and said that this had been a very difficult race to win.
“The race was really hard,” he said. “It was a really hard battle. Everyone was really compact on the start, and I knew that we had to shoot clean if we wanted to win.”
The win today brings Fourcade’s total to 16 World Cup victories, which moves him into fifth place on the all-time list, passing Frode Andresen of Norway and Vladimir Dratchev of Belarus.
“One of my aims this year was to become the fifth biathlete in World Cup victories, and I am happy today to be it,” Fourcade said in the press conference.
Don’t get too cocky, though: fourth place belongs to Svendsen, who has 28 wins and will surely add a few to the tally this year, while teammate Ole Einar Bjørndalen has won a seemingly impossible 93 World Cups.
After his penalty on the last stage, Boeuf held on for sixth, just ahead of Dimitri Malyshko, Ustyugov, Evgeniy Garanichev, and Alexei Volkov of Russia. With half of the top ten, the Russian team seems to have a good start on the Nations Cup competition.
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.