For ten of the twelve laps of today’s IBU World Cup mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden, it seemed inconceivable that anyone other than France would be on the top of the podium at the end of the day. In blustery conditions – the wind was both strong, and unpredictable – most of the field struggled to hit targets, using spare round after spare round and still hitting the penalty loop multiple times.
France, though, made those look like amateur problems – at least for a while. Starting at the first shooting stage, where Marie Laure Brunet cleaned but went out ahead of the several other teams to do so, the French took over. By the second stage, she was the only woman still clean without resorting to spare rounds, and took a ten-second lead out on course.
In a relief for France, Brunet just extended that lead. She cut last season short after overtraining rendered her a shell of the athlete who won a bronze medal at the Vancouver Olympics. Always a strong shooter, today’s relay provided an early indication that Brunet’s ski legs are back and better than ever.
She tagged off to Marie Dorin Habert, who used a spare round in prone and then none in standing, and further extended the lead to 50 seconds, showing why she finished last season ranked fourth in the world.
Simon Desthieux took over from there. He was a question mark – never one of the team’s top two men in the past, Desthieux is just two years out of the junior circuit and has little relay experience compared to his teammates. But he had acquitted himself well in the opening pre-season races in Sjusjøen, Norway. That earned him a spot on the relay, and he looked like a pro, like Habert using just one spare round in total. He looked fluid and relaxed out on course, and betrayed none of the intense pressure he must have been feeling. Another relief – maybe even a revelation – for France.
By the time Desthieux finished, he had almost a minute of time on the second-place Czech Republic. Martin Fourcade, a World Champion four times over, took the tag. He used a spare in prone, but maintained his gap. Then in standing, which Fourcade entered with a lead now greater than a minute and a half, things took a turn for the wild.
Fourcade missed the first shot, then the second, then the third. Then he missed the fourth. He hit the fifth and began using his spares, hitting one of the remaining targets. But, apparently overcome by frustration, he only used tow of his allotted three spare rounds before heading out for three times around the penalty loop.
When he exited, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic had already gone into the lead and Tarjei Bø of Norway was ten seconds back. Fourcade tucked in behind him. Two of the fastest skiers on the circuit, it seemed like finally, at the last minute, the race might turn into a drag race, a toss-up of which of the three teams would get the win.
But for those who had noticed that Fourcade only used two spares, the story had a different narrative. That’s an offense which merits a two-minute penalty. That’s to discourage athletes from deciding to skip the spare rounds when they don’t think they can hit a shot; it would be an unfair advantage to head to the penalty loop early compared to teams which try to shoot, but miss. So by the time Fourcade crossed the finish line – in third, behind Bø, who had not managed to catch Moravec – his time was highlighted in red. A few minutes later, the penalty was added and France dropped off the podium.
It was a major frustration for France, which was let down by arguably their most famous team member. But Fourcade has not been off to a great start this season. He struggled in the opening sprint in Sjusjøen, where Desthieux was the top Frenchman instead, and dropped out of the mass start there.
Today’s debacle added insult to injury. If Fourcade had used all three spares, France would still be on the podium (fourth place Ukraine crossed the finish line a minute after Fourcade and Bø). And if he had hit a target with that spare round, they might even have won – he probably would have exited the penalty loop as Moravec passed by, if not before.
Or maybe France wouldn’t have won. While it’s easy to say that the Czechs won because of Fourcade’s mistakes, the team had been persistently sitting in second for as long as France was in first. And on the last lap, Moravec showed an impressive reserve of speed; even though Bø was trying to drop Fourcade, he couldn’t gain a single second on the Czech, who had the fastest split time of the entire field over that last loop. If he’d had to battle it out with Fourcade, who knows what might have happened.
“I saw Martin had three penalties,” Moravec said in the post-race press conference. “When I shot the conditions were good…I had ten seconds lead when I left the stadium so I tried to push the first uphill to gain some time. By the last hill, the coaches told me I had 15 seconds. About 500 meters from the finish I knew I would win.”
As it was, Moravec celebrated in style as he crossed the finish line, pumping his arms and sticking out his tongue. His teammates ran up to him and overwhelmed him in hugs.
It was a great day for the Czech team, which earned bronze in the last mixed relay, on home ground at 2013 World Championships. In a race that spread out quickly as team after team hit the penalty loop – eleven teams, almost half the field, was lapped in the windy conditions – only the Czechs and Ukrainians avoided the loop. The Czech team did so with eight spare rounds to Ukraine’s twelve. Even in better conditions, that would have represented solid shooting, but today it was remarkable.
“It was one of the most difficult starts of my life,” said second-leg skier Gabriela Soukalova.
It was the first win for the Czechs in the history of the discipline, which appeared on the World Cup for the first time in the early 2000’s. It has since been added to the World Championships schedule and will make its Olympic debut in Sochi. The event was heralded to bring diversity – small teams supposedly have a better chance to win with just two men and two women than they do in a four-person relay of a single sex – but this is one of the first times that a nation outside of the favorites has taken top prize (Sweden, debatably also in this group, had a run of good results in this event a few years ago).
With France’s penalty, Ukraine was bumped on to the podium; Italy, who had lost a sprint finish with Ukraine, moved up to fourth. France was demoted to fifth, while Russia was far back in sixth (+3:03, three penalty loops and 13 spare rounds).
At least a few people didn’t have hard feelings.
“Despite a bad time, I watched a great team!” Fourcade’s brother, Simon, who usually holds the relay position that Desthieux took, tweeted after the race. “Next relay will not be the same! Congrats CZE!”
“The season is launched,” Brunet tweeted. “It was a lot of fun on the tracks and behind the rifle. And about the result, it will be good when it has to be!”
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.