The thing about Le Grand Bornand in Annecy, France, is it’s so darn flat, you’ve got to ski real fast if you’re going to make waves there.
That’s one thing IBU World Cup competitors quickly realized during their five days of races at the venue, with relays on Thursday and Friday, sprints on Saturday, and a final pursuit on Sunday.
As a biathlete, you’ve also got to hit your targets. Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø did both – almost perfectly with 19-for-20 shooting – to rack up his second-straight victory of the weekend and his career.
Starting first, 33 seconds ahead of the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Moravec, the 20-year-old Bø won the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit by 37.5 seconds in 31:43.7. He cleaned his first prone and missed one on the second stage, but it didn’t make much of a difference. He had a 46-second lead before his second prone and was still 21 seconds ahead heading into his third loop.
Bø recorded some of the fastest range and loop times to beat Germany’s Erik Lesser, who cleaned every stage to take second. Another 1.6 seconds back, Russia’s Anton Shipulin placed third with a penalty on the first standing. Meanwhile, Moravec had two penalties to finish 12th.
Twenty of the top 25 finishers cleaned the first prone, and six of those men – including Shipulin, Lesser, Austria’s Daniel Mesotitsch and Dominick Landertinger, and Norway’s Lars Berger and Henrik L’Abee Lund – also cleaned their second prone.
But by the time Bø knocked down all his targets in the first standing, no one else had got a shot off. Lesser cleaned again to move to second, 31 seconds behind the Norwegian, but Bø cleaned once more to dash the hopes of anyone trying to catch him and finished uncontested.
“It was a special feeling to go out with bib number one,” Bø told IBU, according to a press release. “I never felt the pressure. I think that is why I was so good on the shooting range and on the tracks.”
Overjoyed with second and a solid start to the season, Lesser described his weekend in France as “phenomenal.”
“I hope our team can keep this form and try to beat Johannes and his brother [Tarjei] in Sochi,” Lesser said.
The IBU World Cup goes on a three-week holiday break before resuming on Jan. 3 in Oberhof, Germany.
Smith on a Roll
A day after he tied his career-best 16th and qualified for Canada’s Olympic team, Nathan Smith finished eighth in Sunday’s pursuit, 57.5 seconds behind Bø and 18.4 seconds off the podium.
He had risen from 48th to 27th in a pursuit a week earlier in Hochfilzen, Austria, yet Smith knew it would be tighter and harder to pick off the places closer to the front.
As a result, he started conservatively and tried to keep pace with those around him using as little energy as possible. He missed a shot in the first prone, but after doing the same thing last Sunday, Smith knew it was possible to recover.
He ended up cleaning his second and third stages before missing one more on his second standing.
“Missing the last shot is a biathlon classic,” Smith wrote in an email. “I think I lost focus thinking about the possibility of a podium. Frustrating for what could have been, but I’m not too upset, as the race was still a solid [personal best].”
On Monday, Smith plans to fly home to Canmore, Alberta, via Calgary to spend the holidays training and enjoying the break. On Jan. 4, he’ll head back to Germany.
Both his Biathlon Canada teammates currently in France also qualified for the pursuit, with Jean-Philippe Le Guellec shooting clean and placing 33rd (+2:19.0), and Scott Perras finishing 48th with five penalties (+3:29.2).
“Skiing was ok‘ish.’ Better than [Saturday],” Le Guellec wrote in an email. The team veteran placed 49th in the preceding sprint with two standing penalties.
“Shooting 20/20 is a great feeling before heading home,” he added. “I basically tried to survive skiing. I was always between packs too, so skied alone a lot, which makes it harder because you have no one to help you. But easier to since you can really just do your own thing.”
Getting passed a couple times reminded Le Guellec to keep pushing, and he was glad his back didn’t suffer the effects of the flat course.
“I tweaked my standing position a tad, remembering stuff that was working well this summer and kind of forgot down the road, so I think that really helped bring standing back for me,” he explained.
Having a perfect day on the range as well, Lowell Bailey of US Biathlon placed 15th, up from 35th. Perhaps most notably, he had the second-fastest net time of 31:13.7 behind Carl Johan Bergman of Sweden, who finished fourth.
“After cleaning my third stage, I knew I had a good chance at a top finish but I just tried to refocus on what tasks I needed to execute during the fourth stage,” Bailey wrote in an email. “I had been a little bit too tentative on the range earlier in the week and I wanted to stay aggressive and focused for the last stage. I was able to do this and found myself in 18th leaving the range, fighting for a top-15. We had great skis and I felt better than I had in the last two races.”
Bailey went 20-for-20 to finish 1:11 behind Bø (after starting 1:41 behind), and crossed the line just 0.6 seconds ahead of teammate Tim Burke in 16th.
Burke had two penalties – one on each of standing stage – as he skied up from starting 28th.
“I wanted to be really aggressive on the shooting range and on the course,” Burke wrote in an email. “I knew that would be my only chance to move up.”
While Bailey clocked the second-fastest loop time on the fourth of five laps, Burke had the second-fastest course time on the same loop. Burke’s course time on the second loop ranked third.
“I tried to go out really hard right from the start and just hold on,” he explained. “It worked out well for me and I ended up feeling better today than in any of my previous races this season. I ended with the 3rd fastest ski time, so I am very happy with the direction my skiing is headed.”
After cleaning both prone stages, he was up to 15th and thought a podium might be possible. He didn’t get ahead of himself, though, staying aggressive on the range and not “trying to make my shots too perfect,” Burke explained.z
Skiing in 19th at the beginning of the last loop, he trailed Bailey and Sweden’s Frederik Lindstrøm by about five seconds, and pushed hard on the first climb to catch them. Burke also caught Frenchman Martin Fourcade and the group he was skiing with, then beat Lindstrøm and Fourcade in the finishing stretch.
“The finish sprint is really fast here and it comes after nearly a minute downhill, so everyone goes into it completely recovered,” Burke explained. “This is definitely not my type of finish so I knew that I had to try something before the last downhill. I made my move on the last climb and was able to get free of the group.”
Happy with his performance and how he felt after three weeks of racing, Burke’s ready for another big training block. He’ll be in Antholz, Italy, while the rest of his team travels back to the U.S.
“I have had a lot of trouble in the past staying healthy when I fly home for the Holidays, so I did not want to take any extra risks this year,” he explained. “I will also train at altitude for the next few weeks and I am hoping that this will help me in Sochi.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.