NOVÉ MĚSTO NA MORAVĚ, Czech Republic – After Saturday’s sprint, Martin Fourcade said that he would make up the eight seconds on Emil Hegle Svendsen and get the first shot off in the pursuit, and then go on to win.
Sure enough, partway through the first lap of skiing in the 12.5 k competition, there was Fourcade, right on Svendsen’s tails. Both cleaned the first stage and skied the second loop together. But Fourcade couldn’t hold onto the lead, missing two shots in the middle of the race, and didn’t return to the front until the last loop.
Even that was a surprise. Svendsen had shot clean until the last stage; he entered with an almost 20-second lead, and even after missing a shot and skiing a penalty loop, was the first to leave the stadium. Dmitry Malyshko was on his heels, and Svendsen assumed that he would be fighting with the Russian as he had earlier this season in World Cup racing.
But then, doggedly fighting through the trails, Fourcade popped up, again gluing himself to the back of Svendsen’s skis just as he had on the first loop.
“I was very surprised,” Svendsen said in a press conference. “I thought that me and Malyshko, who was also first out of the stadium, we were going to have a go, but all of a sudden these two guys were also there. So it was a change of tactics. I had to just wait for the sprint – that was my tactic when I saw that they were behind me.”
Over the last two kilometers the race developed into one of the most exciting in recent memory. Fourcade had brought Russia’s Anton Shipulin along with him, and suddenly there were four World Cup winners battling against each other, throwing elbows and tangling skis.
How had Svendsen been caught? The Norwegian is hardly a slouch when it comes to skating, and gave no evidence that he was holding back. Yet Fourcade eventually made his way to the front – and it seemed like he might go on to take his first gold medal of the Championships.
“Me and Anton had a little bit of a crash,” Svendsen explained. “I don’t know whose fault it was but we had a little bit of a stop-up in the last uphill, and when this happened Martin could pull away, four or five or six meters. This was crucial because I thought it was the end for me for the gold.”
Fourcade certainly made the most of his competitors’ momentary lapses, and put in an aggressive V2 sprint up the last uphill. Indeed, it appeared that it was all over – even more so because it is tough to remember the last time anyone outsprinted Fourcade when victory was on the line.
But coming down the last big downhill , Svendsen somehow used his momentum to catch back up to the Frenchman. As they crested the small rise before the stadium, he tried to go by on the inside, narrowing the V of his skis to sneak by. Fourcade would have none of it, predictably allowing him no space and clinging to the lead.
As the meters ticked down it looked more and more grim for Svendsen. But as any wily racer knows, as long as there’s one last downhill – no matter how small – the second-place skier still has a fighting chance.
“Then it was around the turn and into the stadium, I caught him and had some strength left for the sprint,” Svendsen said. “When I came behind him I could come off the backs of his skis with a little bit more speed, and this was what decided the pursuit I think.”
As they shot into the finish lines, Svendsen pulled wide. From the back he crept closer and closer, finally pulling alongside Fourcade as the finish line approached. At this point it looked like Fourcade would still prevail – but then he had a slight bobble and started his lunge early. Svendsen got in one more stride before he threw his leg forward across the line – and as Fourcade crumpled into the snow, Svendsen raised his arms in victory.
“I was not sure, but I had to sell it a little bit!” he laughed in the press conference. “I had a good feeling when I saw to my right that maybe I had one or two centimeters or so.”
Svendsen said that he had not looked at the photo finish, but Fourcade certainly had – even after picking himself up out of the snow, he thought he might have held onto gold. But it wasn’t to be – he lost the medal by a margin of just 2.4 centimeters.
“I’m now disappointed because it was so close – 2.4 centimeters,” a crestfallen Fourcade, not his usual boastful self, quietly explained in the press conference. “It was one of those times that you can’t see who is in the front. So that’s why it’s really hard for me to lose today, because I felt really good in the race, for the entire race. When I saw Emil on the left in the last meters I thought that I could beat him… I am disappointed. I will remember this 2.4 centimeters in each training session next summer.”
In their mad dash to the line, the pair – who are undoubtedly some of the best sprinters on the circuit – left the Russians in the dust. Shipulin managed to prevail over his teammate and take bronze, the first Russian medal of the Championships.
Although he had pulled himself up to the lead group, he wasn’t shocked that he couldn’t snag a gold medal out of it.
“I was not surprised at all, because I expected this,” Shipulin said through a translator. “They are formidable to me, I respect them, but next time I will be ready for such speed… This is just the start for our team, but it’s a good start. We have three more starts and of course we will fight for medals in all of them.”
Dominik Landertinger of Austria skied his way up from 15th to take fifth place, nine seconds ahead of sprint bronze medalist Jakov Fak of Slovenia.
But even at the end of the press conference – nearly a full hour after the finish of the race – the gold and silver medalists were shaking their head at how the race had played out.
“I thought I had it on the final uphill, but Emil was strong and he came back to me,” Fourcade lamented. “So, congrats.”
Svendsen was asked if he could remember such a close finish – and he could. Unsurprisingly, it was also against Fourcade.
“Martin and I were just talking about that,” he said. “We had a similar finish in the USA two years ago – in Fort Kent we had the exact same. So it was similar to that, actually. Today was very close, a very close finish. I thought that when Fourcade got a five meter gap on the last uphill that it was over for me, but I got some strength and managed to pull it off in the end, so I was very happy.”
For the Norwegian, it makes three gold medals in three tries here at World Championships. He was on cloud nine.
“This is a dream come true,” he said. “I have no words. It’s very special and I am very thankful and very lucky.”
Fourcade is sure to come back with a vengeance in Thursday’s 20 k individual race – he has lost to Svendsen by a combined 8.2 seconds in the two individual races so far, and also took silver in the relay – but Svendsen is gaining in confidence. He didn’t go so far as to predict a sweep, but he will certainly be in the hunt for medals once again.
“Out of the three competitions so far this was my best day,” he said. “My shooting felt perfect – I had very good control. On the last shooting it was a little bit more wind. This worried me a little bit. I had one missed shot. It was difficult shooting, but I managed to keep my head cool, and I’m happy either way.”
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.