HOCHFILZEN, Austria – Lars Berger has made two things clear over the course of his long career: expect fast skiing, and expect the unexpected.
But rarely have these things come into focus as much as they have today, when Berger – the Norwegian nobody saw coming – swept to a 13-second win the 10 k sprint. Starting very early in the order, Berger had two penalties and had to wait a long time before he could be certain he had won. Martin Fourcade of France cleaned and put on a hard charge towards the top, but ultimately came up short. It was after that when Berger could be certain of his victory.
“It was cool but I knew that I had bib number seven so I would have to wait a long time,” he said. “It seemed quite surreal that I could win today, but I can only say that I love “snowfilzen!” I am really happy to win, really happy… It was a long time ago, my last one, and it is now three times in Hochfilzen.”
First, let’s make something clear: it wasn’t a fair race. A snowstorm picked up during the middle of the competition and left later starters at a huge disadvantage on the slow tracks. On almost any other day, a clean-shooting Fourcade would have won, probably by a lot.
“I was just happy to be on the podium today,” Fourcade said in a press conference. “When I saw my coach out on the track just before the first shooting he said, ‘you are 20 seconds behind Lars Berger,’ so I thought, okay, it’s over… That’s part of biathlon and part of outdoor sports. Sometimes you’re lucky, like I was last week with Fredrik Lindstöm’s fall, and sometimes you are unlucky like today.”
Plenty of other athletes were frustrated too, and had fewer penalties than Berger but were slowed by snow conditions. American Lowell Bailey was among them, along with many Russians, Austrians, and others. Norways’ Emil Hegle Svendsen had a single penalty but placed seventh, 40 seconds back, another anomaly.
Fourcade was remarkably zen about the whole situation, however. And he had other things to celebrate: it was his 11th podium in a row, which he thinks puts him ahead of Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen in the history books (although he has a ways to go to catch up to Bjørndalen’s 90+ wins). And speaking of Bjørndalen: he had one penalty and placed third, despite also having a few snowy and slow laps.
“I’m so happy to be on the podium and when I saw Lars on the screen, I was just happy for him,” Fourcade said.
Indeed, it has been quite a journey for Berger, who has battled injury and has never been a particularly consistent shooter. He was left off the national team roster for Norway this year and trained independently. In fact, Fourcade and his brother Simon invited Berger and fellow ex-national teamer Alexander Os to their hometown of Font Romeu, France, to train this fall.
Perhaps the slight from his longtime team served as extra motivation. Berger was third in a season opening race in Sjusjøen before the start of the World Cup season, and also hit the podium in an IBU Cup race in Beitostolen last week.
“I know that I’m unstable but I also know when my shape is good, especially in the sprint competition it is my chance,” he said. “The race in Beitostolen gave me some confidence, and I know that if I do my very best I can be among the top places here.”
But he wasn’t thinking about winning until the very end.
“I knew it was a really tough competition with these two guys and a lot of others,” he said. “My aim was to do good shooting… [On Fourcade’s last lap] I heard that he was really strong and it was really close. But I had really nice conditions on the last loop, it was a little bit icy in some places, and he had quite poor conditions. So I knew I had a chance.”
Berger said that this will be his last season, thanks to the lingering knee injury. He’s nearing 35, so even without the pesky knee it would be pushing it to continue. He hopes to go out with a bang, but despite the win has some work to do if he wants to make the Olympics.
“I had a good bib today,” he said. “… I also have to have some good results in January if I can make the Olympics.”
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If one thing was familiar, it was that Fourcade squared off against a cadre of Norwegians. The red tide swept through the top ten despite being scattered throughout the field and encountering a variety of snow conditions. Bjørndalen was third and teammate Tarjei Bø fourth; then Svendsen managed to eke into seventh.
Bjørndalen told NRK, the Norwegian broadcaster, that it was his best race of the season so far.
“On the second and third loops it was so slow that I was standing still at times,” he said of starting in bib 40. “I take my hat off to Lars.”
Crowd favorite Christoph Sumann of Austria placed fifth (starting with bib number 4) and Dmytro Pidruchnyi of Ukraine (bib 2) sixth, a career-best by 40 places. Simon Schempp of Germany, starting in bib 8, also placed eighth behind Svendsen. The number of early starters in the top ten showed precisely how hard it was for Fourcade, Bjørndalen, and Svendsen to break into the top despite starting later.
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.