JP Le Guellec did not head to the start line in Östersund, Sweden, today, thinking he could win a race like he did at this venue last year. In the sprint last season, he became the first Canadian man to win a World Cup biathlon race. But was that in the cards today, the first individual race of the new season?
“Definitely, not!” Le Guellec laughed when talking about his pre-race expectations. “This time of year – we’re kind of secluded in North America, and we can’t compare with the Europeans, so it’s hard to have an idea. And even trials in Canmore, things weren’t really super great, especially ski-wise. Shooting was decent I guess. So I guess all I’m saying is that I didn’t come in here super confident.”
Yet he spent half the race in podium position and ultimately ended up fourth, eleven seconds from the podium and 25 seconds out of second place. Martin Fourcade of France blew the field out of the water; as one of only two men to clean all 20 targets in the 20 k individual, he won by over two minutes.
Besides the result, there are definite similarities to Le Guellec’s sprint victory last season. For instance, the wind was strong and unpredictable, and managing that challenge was key. Only three top-20 finishers had more than two penalties; Le Guellec had just one.
“It was just a matter of hitting your targets and hoping they would go down,” Le Guellec said in an interview with FasterSkier. “And I managed that as well. I had a little struggle on my last standing. I was four for four, and it was a major gust that came in for that fifth target. So I had to work for that one a little bit more than the others, but to shoot 19 for 20 on a day like this, you can’t hope for much better.”
Le Guellec had a few other guesses about why he’s had particular success in this northern Swedish town in the last few years. A strong shooter, he often does well in difficult conditions. The course profiles are also similar to one of his home courses, which he said plays to his advantage. But perhaps most importantly, he does well as the season kicks off.
“I was just super psyched to race,” Le Guellec said. “I train to race, not because I like training. I think that’s probably the main reason why I do well early in the season, is that I’m so eager to start racing.”
Teammate Nathan Smith, fresh off the IBU Cup where he stood on the podium last Saturday, also had a good day, finishing 16th with three penalties.
“Nathan skied like a beast today,” Le Guellec said.
Smith had the 21st-fastest ski time, and an especially speedy last loop – the 10th-fastest on the day. He had a lot of motivation: Smith is trying to qualify for the upcoming Olympics, and the most surefire way to do so is to get two top-16 finishes or three top-30 finishes in this first period of racing. That’s why he pushed so hard on the last lap, he said – he was racing for that top-16.
“I felt like I was skiing pretty conservative today, so I was pretty surprised how high my course ranking was,” Smith said. “But I’m not going to complain about that. Before today I didn’t have any criteria done, but I knew I could, if things went well, finish the criteria before Christmas. But I haven’t done a top-30 before, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy. After today I feel like it’s pretty realistic to finish the Olympic criteria.”
When Smith was second in the IBU Cup opener last week, coach Roddy Ward talked about how different his attitude towards training has been this season and how much he has improved. The big dividends continued today with not only the step towards Olympic qualification, but a career-best finish by 22 places.
He worked hard on the last shooting stage, a standing stage, after struggling a bit in the previous prone.
“I obviously missed two on my second prone, which felt a little out of control,” he said. “I was frustrated about that. But I was surprised when the guys out on course told me that I was 20-something. I thought, okay, I must be skiing really well. I really thought I had to clean the last standing and then I’d be able to make the criteria. I really focused hard to get them all down.”
Le Guellec had a similar experience; in the individual format, each missed shot is penalized by a minute of added time, rather than a penalty loop which typically takes 20-25 seconds.
On such a gusty, unpredictable day, that was a very real danger. But the teams were somewhat prepared for it, since the weather has been unusual ever since they arrived in Ostersund.
“This year is particularly windy for this place,” Le Guellec said. “Ever since we got here it’s been this way. Every day that we’ve trained, we’ve been dealing with these winds. That’s a lot better preparation than if we got here and it was mild, and then boom, it just starts to go crazy like that.”
Racing continues for the men on Saturday with a 10 k sprint.
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.