Last weekend in Östersund, Sweden, Andreas Birnbacher got the wrong end of a bargain with Martin Fourcade of France, who told the German that the pair should work together on the final lap but then blocked him coming into the finishing lanes and used that advantage to beat him to the line.
At the press conference, Fourcade smirked that Birnbacher probably wouldn’t do the same thing next time.
And today in Hochfilzen, Austria, Birnbacher turned the tables. In an individual-start 10 k sprint, the German biathlete eked out a narrow, 0.4-second victory over Fourcade. It was Birnbacher’s fifth career win and just his second in a sprint.
Fourcade was a late starter, and Birnbacher told IBU News that as he went to cool down, he was sure that he would not win.
“I was sure he was going to catch me,” he said.
But the Frenchman was not able to, despite having splits going into the final lap telling him how close the race was. The gap was 6.9 seconds after the final shooting stage; Fourcade closed the gap, but not quite enough.
“I was informed of the difference to Andi, and it was for sure an advantage to be in the back [of the field],” Fourcade said in a press conference. “But it was not enough for me today. Andi was a bit faster on the final kilometer. I heard that I was 0.7 seconds ahead of him, so in that moment I hated the one who was in front of me, but at the finish line I smiled because 0.4 seconds, this is really, really close.”
When asked whether he was happy with second, Fourcade responded, “I’m happy with second, but sad because of the small gap between us.”
Despite the fact that he been on the podium last weekend, Birnbacher wasn’t overly confident today.
“The men’s sprint is always so tight,” he said in a press conference after the race, adding that he hadn’t felt great in the two days leading up to the sprint. “I never thought that I could win today, so I’m very happy.”
His perfect shooting was what got him the win; both Fourcade and third-place Jakov Fak of Slovenia (+13.7) missed one shot, Fourcade in prone and Fak in standing. Fourcade said that he had been confident that he could win despite a penalty, even though he was in 38th place after the prone stage.
For Fak, it’s the first podium since a sensational World Championship win in the individual in March, and a major improvement over the Östersund races.
“I think our whole team put too much pressure on ourselves last week,” Fak said in the press conference. “We made a lot of mistakes on the shooting range… but I think we have gotten over that now. Personally, I am happier with the warmer conditions here; they are much better for me.”
After getting serious frostbite on one of his fingers in Fort Kent, Maine, two years ago, that almost led to amputation, Fak has to be more careful than most in cold conditions. While it was ten degrees and bitterly windy in Sweden, Hochfilzen is a relatively balmy 20 degrees, with the snow temperature reported just around freezing.
Friedrich Pinter was fourth, eleven seconds behind Fak, just missing out on giving Austria their third podium from as many athletes just four races into the season. Russians Evgeniy Ustygov (+26.1) and Andrei Makoveev (+27.1) narrowly edged Carl Johan Bergman of Sweden (+27.4), who placed seventh. Simon Hallenbarter of Switzerland placed eighth (+30.5), and Alexis Boeuf of France (+32.0) and Jean Philippe Le Guellec of Canada (+34.0) followed up podium performances in last weekend’s sprint by rounding out the top ten.
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Darya Domracheva was also left looking for a win last weekend, as she was unable to ski quite fast enough to make up for the near-perfect shooting from Norway’s Tora Berger, who swept all three individual races.
But in Hochfilzen today, the top four finishers all had one penalty, so the playing field was even with respect to ski time. And the Belorussian beat Berger on the trails – in fact she beat almost the whole field – so earned the win.
“To be a winner is always special,” the 2012 World Cup runner-up said in a press conference, where she was informed that it was her tenth victory. “I tried to be more calm today.”
But her win came partly from luck – the second-place finisher, Kaisa Makarainen of Finland, actually had a better course time than Domracheva, and matched her shooting as well. But while Makarainen hit the same number of targets, she was actually undone on the range, taking an extra 45 seconds to complete her final standing stage. Without that delay, she certainly would have taken the win; as it was, she only finished 4.7 seconds out of first.
“I had some ice in my sight, and I tried to blow it away but it didn’t go away,” Makarainen reported in a press conference. “I almost couldn’t see anything when I was shooting in standing. Then my legs started to shake!”
After completing her marathon shooting stage and a penalty loop, Makarainen hit the trails and turned in the fastest last-lap time.
“I was really happy after the not-so-good shape last week that I could be on the podium here,” Makarainen said. “It’s nice to be here, but I’m a little bit sad, too, that I had problems with the standing shooting.”
Starting several bibs behind, Domracheva heard exactly how fast the Finn had skied and had to turn on the jet engines to collect the win.
“For sure, the results from Kaisa was a big red flag for me,” Domracheva said. “I always try to fight really hard to the finish line, but her result today was a very big motivation for me.”
Third place went to Berger, who said coming into this race that Hochfilzen was not a great venue for her. Still, she narrowly beat teammate Synnøve Solemdal, who was looking for her first World Cup podium. At the finish line, Berger actually thought Solemdal had beaten her, but she held a three-second lead over the younger athlete.
“With her legs, going up the last hill, I knew that it was going to be hard [to hold onto third,” Solemdal told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after she had nervously waited at the finish line to see if Berger would beat her. “But I fought as hard as I could, and in tomorrow’s pursuit, then I can be on the podium.”
Poland had a strong showing as well, one of their best days in recent memory, with Krystyna Palka and Magdalena Gwizdon finishing fifth (+29.3) and sixth (+33.7). Teja Gregorin of Slovenia and Nadezhda Skardino of Belarus tied for seventh (+40.2), before Miriam Gossner of Germany turned in one of the more inspired performances of the day to place ninth (+44.0) despite four penalties. The rest of the top ten either shot clean or had a single missed shot, and Gossner was only beat on the trails by Makarainen. Marie Dorin Habert of France placed tenth (+48.7).
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.