Today’s biathlon mass starts in Sjusjøen, Norway, were just a warm-up before the real season begins – but they had many trappings of a World Cup race.
Live television coverage? Check. High-profile coporate sponsors? Check. Throngs of fans lining the trails, eating their picnic lunches and shouting “Heja Tora” for World Champion Tora Berger? Check, check, check. Pine boughs were laid on top of snow that had been shaped into benches around the course, and smoke drifted away from campfires next to tents. No matter what time of year it is, in Norway it’s time to watch a ski race.
Teams even showed off their new uniforms, with Ukraine and Germany strutting redesigned Adidas duds and France a much-improved version of the OneWay suits. Austria, meanwhile, added some black to their traditional red-and-white getups. Let the games begin!
Women’s 12.5 k Mass Start
The races may have been lacking a few of the sport’s top competitors, but spectators were still treated to a classic showdown between two of biathlon’s greats: Berger, who won the World Cup total score last season, and Andrea Henkel, who was third last season and had previously won it in 2007.
The race started out looking more like a team time trial. After the first shooting stage, only Anais Bescond of France could break into the top seven – the rest were all Norwegians, surging in a pack around her. Berger and teammates Ann Kristin Flatland and Hilde Fenne were able to break away for a small lead by the time they hit the second shooting stage. There, only Berger was clean.
Meanwhile, Henkel had accrued a penalty in the first stage, and worked hard to battle her way back into the top ten. She cleaned in the second stage and was able to move into second place, albeit 27 seconds behind Berger. Over the course of the next two and a half kilometers, Norway’s Elise Ringen worked her way up to Henkel and the two entered the range together for standing.
Berger had put a little bit more time on the chasers, but her luck began to turn. On her second shot, she split her bullet – part went into the wood surrounding the target, and a shard hit the target itself. The mechanical arm tipped slowly back…. and then righted itself, the half of a bullet not enough to knock it down completely. Berger headed for the penalty loop.
Henkel cleaned and set off 13 seconds behind her. But honestly, she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, she wasn’t expecting to ever regain the lead.
“I actually thought the race was over,” Henkel admitted. “Tora is usually such a strong standing shooter. I thought I would be alone for the rest of the race, but I really focused because I still didn’t want to be on the penalty loop.”
Berger put a few more seconds on her rival before they arrived at the final shooting. Then, the unexpected: Berger missed two shots.
“I was very surprised when she missed two,” Henkel said. “I was just trying to be very concentrated. I didn’t feel so good today, so I really didn’t want to go to the penalty loop.”
The focus paid off and Henkel sailed out onto the course while Berger was still stuck in the penalty loop. Valj Semerenko of Ukraine also cleaned, and hit the trails second, nine seconds behind the German. Berger left with a 26-second gap to close if she wanted the win – which she did, after a disastrous prone stage knocked her down to sixth in yesterday’s sprint.
Henkel used her remaining energy to push hard over the first half of the loop, extending her lead on Semerenko. Berger seemed to be closing, but never quite made it. An exhausted Henkel crossed the line in first, pumping her fist. She had given up the time she gained earlier in the lap and Semerenko was again nine seconds behind; Berger was this close to gaining a spot, coasting across the line two seconds behind the Ukrainian.
“It was too many penalties for me,” Berger told NRK. “I started out well, but I’m still getting used to racing again. I got upset at the penalties and didn’t do exactly as I should [after that]. I’m going to harp on the shooting from now on. Now I have something specific to work on for next week.”
It was the second win of the weekend for Henkel, who dominated Saturday’s sprint with a 27-second victory over Marie Dorin Habert of France, who was fourth today.
“I have trained for a few years to get into this kind of shape!” Henkel laughed when the NRK interviewer asked her how she was so fit early in the season. “But actually I didn’t feel as good today as I did yesterday… I hope I am feeling better for the Olympics, but if I still win there then it doesn’t matter!”
Extras: In the women’s “B” race, Megan Heinicke of Canada was fifth, 1:38 behind Olympic bronze medalist Marie Laure Brunet of France.
Men’s 15 k Mass Start
The men’s race was a bloodbath, if you weren’t Norwegian. Heck, even if you were. It was vicious from the start, with fast-moving pack skiing that claimed Germany’s Erik Lesser in an early crash. And last year’s World Cup winner and World Champion Martin Fourcade was having a bad race and dropped out in the fourth lap; television cameras followed him as he walked through the woods back to the stadium.
(“A bit disappointed about today’s feeling on the track!” he had tweeted after placing fifth in Saturday’s sprint. “Tomorrow race will give me more informations.” What did he learn?)
Many of the pre-race favorites accumulated a penalty in the first prone stage, but Norway’s Lars Helge Birkeland took the lead and kept is almost all the way through the next lap. He was eventually passed by teammates Tarjei Bø and Emil Hegle Svendsen, who skied onto the range together with Carl Johan Bergman, a Swede who lives just a five minute drive from Sjusjøen in nearby Mesnali. Despite a different suit, these trails are as much his home turf as anyone’s.
Bø seemed to take control of the race, as one of five men who cleaned the stage. He skied with Svendsen, two Austrians, and Arnd Peiffer of Germany for the entire next lap, then went out in front again after the first standing shooting. Again, there were many penalties. He skied the next lap with Andriy Deryzemlya of Ukraine and Julian Eberhard of Austria, while the chase pack moved within striking distance. Bø was frequently at the front of his groups, pushing the pace and setting the narrative.
But despite seeming so confident, Bø lost control at the last minute, missing two shots in the last stage. The first two racers to clean were veteran Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who had gradually worked his way up after two prone penalties, and young teammate Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen. 39-year-old Bjørndalen took the lead, until Christiansen passed him on an uphill. The Norwegian coaching staff looked on, amused, at the jumbotron in the stadium. A kilometer later, Bjørndalen attacked and left Christiansen in the dust, skiing easily to the win.
Bjørndalen, who was second behind Svendsen in Saturday’s sprint, was glad to report that he felt stronger than just one day before. After this weekend, criticism that he’s too old for a heroic result at what will be his sixth Olympics seem moot.
“Today I had completely different energy,” he told NRK. “Because of my penalties I had to push very hard to take the lead. It was a long way, but on the trails here it is possible. So I could push hard the whole way and was able to respond to pressure.”
The battle for third place was even more exciting. Peiffer, Svendsen, and Bø’s younger brother Johannes Thingnes Bø had left the range together, but their group did not stay together long. Other racers dragging themselves towards the front, eager to prove their worth before the opening World Cup races next weekend.
It was Lars Berger, the Olympic veteran who was not nominated to the national team for this season, who came charging through the fastest. Despite four penalties to Svendsen’s three – Bjørndalen and Christiansen each had two – he pulled Svendsen with him as the pair left Peiffer behind. They made it within two seconds of Christiansen, but could not overtake him. The two Norwegians battled it out in the finishing stretch but Svendsen eventually conceded, and Berger took the mini-victory for third.
In all, Norway took nine of the top 12 spots. Peiffer was relegated to fifth, and Simon Desthieux was again the top Frenchman, snagging sixth after placing third in the sprint on Saturday.
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.