When you hit all twenty targets in a competition, biathlon racing is fairly simple. That was the case for Andreas Birnbacher of Germany today, who was in the top three for almost the entirety of the 15 k mass start and skied to his second victory of the season in Pokljuka, Slovenia today.
“My shooting definitely helped,” Birnbacher said in a press conference. “On the last lap, I was very happy that those other guys were not very close, because I was quite tired.”
When you start accumulating penalty loops, though, things get a little more complicated. That was true for the rest of the field; the other 29 men, who qualified for the prestigious mass start format based on World Cup ranking or performance this weekend in Pokljuka more specifically, all missed at least two shots.
And having done so, they bounced around the field considerably with each clean stage – or with each penalty loop. Overall World Cup leader Martin Fourcade of France, for example, was sitting in second place after three stages, 15 seconds away from Birnbacher, along with Jakov Fak of Slovenia and Evgeniy Ustyugov of Russia.
But after Birnbacher cleaned yet another stage – it was his sixth perfect day on the range in World Cup competition, and his third in mass start racing – Fourcade and Fak both missed a shot, while Ustyugov picked up two penalties. Birnbacher left with over 30 seconds on the competition, effectively closing the door on a possible victory by any of the imperfect shooters.
Life became even more difficult for Fourcade and Fak when the penalty loops allowed Tim Burke of the United States and Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway to creep back into the race.
Burke had cleaned his initial two stages, but taken the skiing easy; after missing a shot in his first standing stage, he sat in ninth place. Svendsen had collected a penalty right out of the start, dropping to 22nd after the first prone stage. He also missed a shot in the first standing stage, but strong skiing kept him in 12th at that point, not too far behind Burke.
After skiing hard on the fourth loop and then missing a single shot in the final stage, Burke found himself in third. Svendsen cleaned the last stage and moved into fifth. Fak was just ahead of them and Fourcade separated the two. While Birnbacher had the win locked down, it was set to be a horse race for second: Burke was the only one of the four who hadn’t won a World Cup yet this season.
“I knew it was going to be a real fight on the last loop because Svendsen and Fourcade were only five seconds behind me,” Burke told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “Those are the last two names that you want to hear right behind you going onto the last loop.”
Last season, Svendsen and Fourcade would have been easy bets to outsprint the others. But this is a new year, and instead it was Fak and Burke who had a six second gap with 1600 meters left in the race.
“I was glad that I had conserved a lot of energy earlier in the race by staying in the pack so that I had enough left to pick it up at the end,” Burke wrote. “This was by far the best that I have felt on the skis this season. It felt great to be able to push again on the last loop when the others were close behind.”
Ultimately unable to stick with the Slovenian, Burke settled for third, his best result of the season and his first podium since 2010. The result moved him from tenth to sixth in the overall World Cup standings.
In the press conference, Burke expressed relief that he finally seems to be over the compartment syndrome that affected his 2011 season and the surgery that he was still recovering from during 2012.
“It took almost all of last year to come back from my compartment surgery and regain my confidence that I was as fast as before,” Burke said. “I am very happy to back up here.”
For Fak, second place was also a relief. After winning Thursday’s sprint on home soil, the Slovenian disintegrated in the pursuit and was unable to hold onto the lead, ultimately placing 22nd with six penalties.
“That was the first time that I had number one and started in front of all of the big guys,” Fak said in today’s press conference, referring to the pursuit. “The pressure took over and I was probably the worst shooter out there.”
With that out of the way, Fak said that “a big stone was off my back” and he was back to being the relaxed, focused athlete who had won two World Cups so far this season.
And Burke was back to the form that had him in the yellow bib of the overall leader back in 2010.
“This was a great race for me – both my skiing and shooting really came together on the same day,” Burke wrote in his e-mail. “This was a great early Christmas present and now I am looking forward to heading home and spending some time with my family and friends for the holidays.”
Fourcade was left in fourth, while Bjorn Ferry of Sweden passed Svendsen to snag fifth. Ustyugov was seventh and teammate Evgeniey Garanichev eighth, Norwegian Henrik L’Abee-Lund ninth, and Florian Graf of Germany tenth.
Jean Philippe Le Guellec was the only Canadian racing and placed 21st with two penalties.
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.