After collecting his second victory of the season and Slovenia’s first on home soil, Jakov Fak was hoping to continue his momentum as he left the pursuit start in bib number one.
With six penalties in the four-stage, 12.5 k race, Fak was unable to rise to the occasion again. In his wake, another man with something to prove used near-perfect shooting to get his first win of the new season: Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway, the 2010 World Cup champion and 2011 and 2012 runner-up.
So far, it had been something of an unusual season for Norway, traditionally so strong in the men’s standings. The team did not have an individual podium in either Östersund, Sweden, or Hochfilzen, Austria, and their winning relay team in Hochfilzen was comprised of veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen along with several lower-ranked members of the team with little World Cup experience. 2011 World Cup champion Tarjei Bø hasn’t even appeared on the circuit yet, battling his way back from respiratory problems this fall.
And then there was Svendsen. After only narrowly losing to Martin Fourcade of France in the World Cup standings last season, the Norwegian – who has one of the most fearsome finishing sprints in the field – was expected to be back with a vengeance, but had been largely unimpressive in the first two weeks of racing.
Svendsen finished only 0.8 seconds behind Fak in the sprint, and after cleaning in the first stage while Fak missed a shot, the Norwegian was at the front with Fourcade. Finally, the matchup that had played out so many times over the 2012 season was set to thrill spectators once more.
“It felt like a two-man race the whole way,” Svendsen said in a press conference after the race.
As the rain poured down on the course, battering down the heavy snow that had fallen continuously during the women’s sprint on Friday, Svendsen and Fourcade battled through three loops of racing, each shooting perfectly in both prone stages and the first standing stage. First Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France tried to hang with them, then Evgeniy Ustyugov of Russia, but none could keep up on the trails and the range.
By the time the two leaders entered the range for the final time, they had a 20 second gap to the next racers. Trading shots, Svendsen collected one penalty and Fourcade two.
“On the last shooting, I was able to keep my head together and go away with just one mistake,” Svendsen said. “My shape has been steady all winter, but my shooting is better and that is the difference now compared to a couple of weeks ago.”
Fourcade, on the other hand, said that his head was what kept him from the win today.
“Emil and I did the perfect race for the first three stages,” he admitted in the press conference. “In the final stage, I was more focused on him than on my shooting and missed two shots.”
Not only did Fourcade’s second penalty allow Svendsen to leave the penalty loop alone and saunter his way to the win, but it opened the door for other racers to catch up to him. After missing only one shot on the final standing stage, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic, who started the day in eighth place, left the loop just a second behind Fourcade.
As has been the custom so far this season, Fourcade was unable to ski away from the competition as he often did last year. Moravec ditched him while turning in a blazing fast last 2.5 kilometers, and almost made up the 24-second gap to Svendsen, crossing the line in second place just 3.8 seconds back.
He told IBU News that he had some added inspiration after teammate Gabriela Soukalova took the first win of her career in the sprint the day before. Moravec wasn’t quite able to match that performance, but second place is the best World Cup result of his career.
“Yesterday was perfect for our team,” Moravec said. “I tried to do the same as her today and stayed focused on the shooting range. I was close with only one penalty…the tracks were hard and slow today, but for me it was the best race of my career. I am very happy to be on the podium for the first time.”
For Svendsen, the win put him back in familiar territory, which was a relief.
“It is nice to be up here,” he said. “I felt like something was missing this season.”
It brings his total World Cup wins to 29, but Svendsen obviously still thought of today’s performance as an accomplishment.
“This was incredibly delicious,” he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I finally got it. I turned around [at the last stage] to see if there were any of the others who had shot well, but there were not. It was a great feeling.”
Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia placed fourth, +27 and ten seconds behind Fourcade. Fredrik Lindstrom of Sweden was fifth (+33.9) and Ustyogov sixth (+42.3). Tim Burke of the United States was unable to hold his fourth-place position from the sprint, but tweeted that he was happy to place seventh (+45.1); he had three penalties.
Beatrix finished eighth (+49.8), and Simon Schempp of Germany ninth (+53.3). Another career-best result came from Andrejs Rastorgujevs of Latvia, who made the top ten for the first time, missing a single shot and skiing the fastest course time of the day to move up from 38th place after the sprint.
Lowell Bailey placed 28th for the U.S.; Scott Perras led the Canadian effort with 31st, while Scott Gow placed 50th in his first World Cup pursuit.
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.