Martin Fourcade slowed up before the finish line, pumping his fists in the air and screaming to celebrate his victory.
An ill-timed lunge was the only thing the kept Dmitry Malyshko off the podium – as it was, he finished just 0.1 seconds behind Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway, whom the Russian had vanquished twice last weekend.
This might make Saturday’s World Cup biathlon race in Ruhpolding, Germany, like an exciting mass start, or perhaps a pursuit or relay. But no: it was a humble sprint. And yet the interval-start 10 k brought all the drama that is often reserved for head-to-head racing.
Sprints can bring one more piece of drama too, and that’s the opportunity for a late starter to rear his head and shake things up after everyone thinks the race is over. Starting in bib 85, Andrei Makoveev was justifiably thrilled to cross the line in third place, bumping both Svendsen and Malyshko off the podium.
After two podium finishes last year, including a win in Nove Mesto, Makoveev had been frustrated with his season so far. And on the extremely deep Russian team, finishing in the top ten doesn’t get you much – today, as they did in last weekend’s sprints, the Russians placed three in the top six. Hence Makoveev’s late starting spot.
“Until today I was not happy with my season but I hope the rest of the season goes better now,” he said in a press conference.
While the same could be said for all of the podium finishers, the day belonged to Fourcade, who is finally returning to the dominant form he showed last season. That seems strange to write, since it’s his third win of the season, but after winning both the World Cup total score last year and three individual races at World Championships, there were big expectations for the French star this season.
He was hindered slightly by a shoulder injury, but said today that it was “not a problem anymore.”
“When I was warming up for my race, I saw that all the guys that started before me were cleaning,” he told Biathlonworld. “It was amazing.”
It’s true: the wind was calm on the Ruhpolding range, which is already shooter-friendly because the trails approach off a downhill. 23 men, or almost a quarter of the field, hit all ten targets, including all of the podium finishers and eight of the top ten.
That turned the competition into more of a ski race than anything else, and after one clean stage Fourcade had a 3-second lead on Anton Shipulin of Russia. (Later starters eventually came between them even at that early checkpoint, and Andriy Deryzemlya of Ukraine ended the day with the fastest split through one stage.)
“When I was first after prone shooting, I knew that the race was only for me, that I could win it or I could lose it,” he said. “But I had it.”
By the standing stage, Fourcade had widened his lead to 13 seconds, now over Ustyugov, who had sped up significantly on the second lap. By the finish, Fourcade’s margin over the Russian was 16.4 seconds, although he didn’t push all the way to the line.
Fourcade and Ustyugov also skied a lap together, so the Frenchman knew exactly what he had to do to win, although he clearly didn’t count on someone coming from the back of the field onto the podium. And conversely, as Ustyugov waited at the finish, he knew what Fourcade was capable of.
“Congratulations to Martin,” he said after the race. “You led me through the loops today…You proved that you will be hard to beat this year. It was good to follow you today.”
And for Ustyugov, a multi-time World Cup winner, being on the podium carried the same benefits that it does for Makoveev: finally, recognition on a team that has many stars.
“I was always in the top ten for most of the season so far, and being here in second place is big weight off my shoulders,” Ustyugov said in a press conference.
Despite leading the race early on, teammates Emil Hegle Svendsen and Tarjei Bø, newly returning from an illness-plagued fall, were knocked down to fourth and seveth. After Malyshko in fifth it was another Norwegian, Lars Helge Birkeland, who made an appearance in the top ten, clocking in at sixth place. Despite showing strong potential in both biathlon and skiing, this was his first top ten and a career best; his previous top finish had been 21st.
Jean Guillame Beatrix of France, Andriy Deryzemlya of Ukraine, and Scott Perras of Canada rounded out the top ten.
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.