In the early going of Saturday’s 10 k World Cup sprint in Sochi, Russia, it looked like it might be a close race.
After the first shooting, four of the sport’s big names were all ranked within four seconds of each other. Martin Fourcade of France had the fastest time. But also shooting clean, Evgeniy Ustyugov of Russia was just 1.8 seconds back, followed by Erik Lesser and Arnd Peiffer of Germany. Behind them, Norwegians Henrik L’Abee-Lund and Tarjei Bø hovered within ten seconds of the lead.
On Thursday, Fourcade had put on a dominating show of ski prowess en route to winning the 20 k individual, besting Germany’s Andi Birnbacher despite having an extra minute of penalty time.
And so it was perhaps not surprising that by the time Fourcade, who in bib 50 was the latest starter of the group of six, cleaned his standing stage, it wasn’t a close race at all. He had put 30 seconds into Lesser in the intervening 3.3 kilometers. Ustyugov, meanwhile, had missed a shot, and sat in third just ahead of L’Abee-Lund.
The real question was how much more time Fourcade could pick up by the finish. He turned that lead into a 42.3-second win, solidifying his place as the man to beat when the Olympics hit these trails next year. In good news for the home country, it was Ustyugov who made it into second, as Lesser faded and lost 20 seconds in the last lap of skiing.
L’Abee-Lund took third place for the first podium of his career.
It was Fourcade’s 16th podium of the season, a new record for a male biathlete.
“This is a warning shot to competitors,” NRK commentator and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Halvard Hanevold said of these two days of competitions.
Fourcade certainly feels the same way. It’s true that his biggest rival, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, is sitting these races out. But Fourcade insisted in Thursday’s press conference that Svendsen’s presence wouldn’t have made a difference in his results.
“What I think about Svendsen?” Fourcade asked in response to a question from IBU Communication Director Peer Lang. “He’s a great champion and he had wonderful results at World Championships, but I was better this year. I don’t care if he’s there or not.”
After Thursday’s hard-packed and fast trails, Saturday brought some fresh snow and much softer conditions, taking if anything an extra toll on racers’ legs even though Thursday had already been universally described as brutal.
“It was even harder today, with the soft snow,” L’Abee-Lund said in a press conference. “The uphills were harder and the downhills were slow and hard.”
It took some other tolls, too – Maxim Tsvetkov of Russia went flying off the course, over the snowbank and into the trees on a downhill corner (video here), and had to pull out of the race.
All this is a preview for the Olympics, and Fourcade likes it. In fact, he said that he didn’t feel like these races were anything special; instead, he achieved the wins by just being himself.
“I am just a man with two arms and two legs,” he said in Saturday’s press conference. “I am in really good shape now. This week, my goal was to get a good feeling for the Sochi tracks.”
Mission accomplished: he has picked up good information.
“I don’t care if the track is flat or soft or hard, I want to do everything to win gold next year,” Fourcade told German broadcaster ZDF.
If he skis anything like he has this year, it seems inevitable. Having already locked up the World Cup Total Score, Fourcade is set to take a lot of hardware back to France with him. These two wins gave him both the Sprint and Individual trophies as well, and he had already clinched the Pursuit title.
In the last discipline, the mass start, Fourcade holds a lead going into the final competition in Khanty-Mansiysk, and seems likely to take the title as well.
While Ustyugov was the only Russian to make the podium, the team had plenty to celebrate as his third-best ski time was also bested by Alexey Slepov, who skied the second-fastest time. Dmitry Malyshko had the fifth-best time and junior Alexandr Loginov the ninth-fastest. If the team can get their shooting together, the possibilities in Sochi seem good.
But of all the podium finishers, L’Abee-Lund was perhaps the happiest.
“It has been almost within reach so many times,” the 26-year-old told NRK. “Today it worked out completely, and it feels great. I’m very happy with the race and it was incredibly fun.”
Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey finished 28th and 30th with two and one penalties, respectively, to lead the U.S.; Leif Nordgren finished 40th with one missed shot and Russell Currier 91st with five penalties.
For Canada, both Scott Gow and Jean Philippe Le Guellec shot clean to place 49th and 52nd. Scott Perras had five penalties and just edged Currier in 90th.
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.