ÖSTERSUND, Sweden – The way some people look at it, today definitely didn’t present ideal conditions for biathlon. With gusty, raging wind that flapped at the international collection of flags here in the stadium and chilled athletes and spectators alike, shooting was a challenge.
Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway and Martin Fourcade of France, who dueled through last season in pursuit of the overall World Cup crown, each missed three shots. Lowell Bailey of the United States missed two, but said that unlike any other race, he wasn’t disappointed – he was actually happy.
Then there was the cold, which only arrived recently to Sweden. The temperature was officially listed as around 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but with the wind it felt much colder. While that would be tough enough for skiers, biathletes can’t wear mittens or thick gloves because it impedes their trigger fingers, and they have to raise their glasses to shoot.
“It is [hard on] the fingers and the eyes, the feet, everything,” said Alexis Boeuf of France. “So we have to find a solution.”
But rather than consider the difficulties presented here in Östersund, Jean-Philippe Le Guellec of Canada looked at the conditions a little differently.
“When it’s windy, it’s always a window of opportunity,” he told FasterSkier after finishing the World Cup10 k sprint. “Luckily that arose today.”
The Quebec native seized the bull by the horns and shot clean, one of only two men in the 103-athlete field to do so. Not only that, but he skied well – well enough to land in first place, with a sizeable 18.1-second lead over Boeuf.
“If this hangs on, it’s going to be a huge day,” Le Guellec told FasterSkier when there were still racers finishing.
Le Guellec was just the 38th starter, but the 2/3 of the field that started after him was unable to match his performance. Alexis Boeuf of France, who finished just a minute before, was able to come close – he skied faster – but had collected a penalty in standing and was left in second. Christoph Sumann of Austria, starting back in bib 75, also had a penalty in standing, but was able to eke out third place, 6.7 seconds behind Boeuf.
As Le Guellec related in the press conference, he didn’t actually know he was in the running; through two laps his coaches only told him “good job” and that he was having a good race.
“I didn’t know actually, leaving the range,” he told FasterSkier at the finish. “When I passed my coach over there after the range, Tom was saying – I didn’t hear the position, but he said something about five seconds. And then when I was near the top a bit further, he said, ‘You’re in first, you’ve got five seconds!’ And then…”
Despite only having five seconds early in the 3.3 k loop, he managed to extend that lead significantly – perhaps because Florian Graf of Germany faded. After being in podium position, Graf slipped to fourth place. Boeuf, on the other hand, put in a hard charge like Le Guellec’s and moved from being ranked sixth leaving the range to finishing as the runner-up.
“Today it was windy,” Boeuf said in the press conference. “I decided before the race to be as calm as I could be, and I worked really hard to put the bullet in sight. To finish with four and five, I’m okay with this.”
It was just the fourth World Cup podium for the 26-year-old Frenchman, whose sole victory came at lightly-attended races in Fort Kent, Maine, in 2011.
A decade older and the owner of an Olympic silver medal, Sumann seemed even happier than Boeuf to be on the podium. Over both the short and long term, his results have been bouncing around: last season was a disappointment for the entire Austrian team, and on Wednesday he placed 34th in the 20 k individual, despite shooting the same score as the winner, Martin Fourcade of France.
“I had a quite good relay on Sunday, good skiing, and then a really disgusting performance on Wednesday that I couldn’t explain,” Sumann said in the press conference. “It was horrible from the beginning on, the shooting was good but the skiing… not. But today was better than the days before. And the speed was good. It was more than I expected.”
Along with teammate Dominik Landertinger’s second-place performance on Wednesday, the Austrian team is off to a much better start this year, which is a relief for everyone involved.
“It’s very important,” Sumann said. “We had a really, really bad season last year. The whole season was not the best we’ve had, but there were a lot of changes this summer. A new coach, a new system with just one team, so we’re going hard. But every year you don’t know where you are at the beginning, and it’s a good feeling that you’re back.”
But the day belonged to Le Guellec, who earned Canada its first ever win by a male biathlete. The previous best, according to Biathlon Canada, was a sixth-place finish by Glen Rupertus back in 1993.
And Le Guellec was showing some relief of his own to finally be having a good season, much like Sumann. He contracted mononucleosis after the Vancouver Olympics – where he finished sixth in this same event – and as he told FasterSkier this spring, he’s finally feeling like he’s 100 percent again, two seasons later.
“Physically – how can I put this – the strain feels the same [now],” Le Guellec explained at the finish line. “I’m pushing just as hard as I did last year, as I did two years ago. But the speed that you’re going, that’s different. It’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Hyundai Accent. They’re both going at 3,000 rpm, but one is going 200 miles an hour. So that’s the difference.”
That’s how he managed to gain so much ground on the last loop – a feeling he is not familiar with from the last few seasons.
“I don’t know what happened there!” Le Guellec laughed.
As for how he managed to knock down all ten targets, the Canadian shrugged. He just tried to pretend it was practice, he said.
“I stayed totally relaxed through my standing,” he reported. “Especially since I had struggled in standing in [Wednesday’s] individual, so I thought, just do what you usually do in training. Stay relaxed and just shoot ‘em down. I was still trying to ski really relaxed on the last lap. At that point it’s a definite good race, and so I wanted to get in there and work hard, and get into the finish having given everything.”
Stay tuned for more on Le Guellec’s race and the significance for the Canadian team.
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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.