France’s Martin Fourcade was asked in the post-race press conference last week in Sochi, Russia, what he thought of winning the 10 k sprint there without Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen on the start list. Biathlon’s most dominant performer of the year was direct and confident in his response.
“He’s a great champion and he had wonderful results at World Championships, but I was better this year,” Fourcade said firmly. “I don’t care if he’s there or not.”
Well, Svedsen was there on Friday in Khanty Mansiysk, and Fourcade proceeded stomped all over the Norwegian and everybody else in the field. Wearing bib 23 on a start list that crammed the faster seeds at the beginning, Fourcade left little doubt he would claim another win before the day was through. Last week the top starters stayed within a few seconds of each other after the prone stage, but that was not the case on Friday. Fourcade came into the range for the first lap already 14 seconds up on the next contender, after which he shot cleanly and quickly to hold onto his margin as he left for his second loop.
Fourcade then cleaned his targets in the standing stage, too, and won the race by 39.6 seconds over Italy’s resurgent Lukas Hofer. Andreas Birnbacher (GER) took third, 43.8 seconds back. The win was Fourcade’s 17th podium of the season, a mark that surpasses the new record he set for himself with his 10 k win in Sochi.
“He’s something incredible on the skis, it’s really impressive,” Hofer said.
Svedsen’s presence, meanwhile, was of little consequence. The Nowegian floundered in 30th with one error, 1:40.1 off Fourcade’s mark. The Frenchman pointed this out.
“I was really happy Emil Svendsen was here and not to have the question from the media, ‘What do you think, to win without him here?’” Fourcade said. “He was here today.”
Fourcade did not compete in the Sochi relay last weekend, but he didn’t think the extra recovery necessarily factored much into his performance in Khanty.
“I was hurt with my back for the relay and it was hard for me to say to my teammates I could not race with them and try to win, and I was really said, but now my shape is almost incredible,” he said. “I knew in training yesterday when I did a short test that my shape was still at the top.”
Conditions in Khanty were cold but calm, which set many athletes up for shooting well. Hofer in particular enjoyed competing in the cold, and with his second-place finish he was able to rekindle the energy he first felt at the venue four years ago.
“I like the low temperatures; I love this place,” Hofer said. “I train a lot at minus 20, so it does not bother me.”
The Italian struggled earlier this season after his father passed away in October, but since December his fitness and mental focus have finally come back around in time for the final races of the year.
“It was hard mentally in the beginning of the season,” Hofer said. “After December, I started to get better in both shooting and skiing. Now I feel I can finally bring the training into the races. We have to work a lot with our mental training…so for the moment it’s working well.”
Birnbacher has had a similar recent improvement in results. He was sick before World Championships in Nove Mesto but is now in a better place mentally, which he says is crucial in a field as tightly competitive as the men’s World Cup currently is.
“When you go to the podium you have to be in a very good mental situation; the men’s races are very close,” Birnbacher said. “I felt empty at World Championships but…now [my shape] is getting better and better for me, so I’m happy to get on the podium in Sochi and here.”
With only two races to go before the end of the season Fourcade has nearly guaranteed he will still be on top of the overall ranking when the last race is over. Though he’s been unstoppable as of late, he is very aware that anything could happen in the mass start.
“I know if I do the job, if I do a great race, I will win,” Fourcade said. “But I know also that this is biathlon. I have to finish over 19th to lose the globe but last year I was 24th in the last mass start, so anything can happen, I think. We all know it.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.