HOCHFILZEN, Austria – Emil Hegle Svendsen is one of the best in the business, but the Norwegian isn’t known for his perfect shooting. More often than not, the ten-time World Champion acknowledges his bad habit of letting his fast skiing make up for a miss on the range.
But today in the World Cup 4 x 7.5 k relay, he was cool, collected, and on-target when it counted most. The habitual anchor leg for Norway cleaned his prone stage with no spare rounds, then took off and never looked back. Norway, the defending Olympic and World Champions in the men’s relay, won again.
“I knew that after me there were some really strong guys,” said young leadoff skier Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen. “I tried to do my best and the other guys did a better job.”
The end of the race was a familiar situation for Svendsen, who was skiing with Dmitry Malyshko, the anchor leg for Russia. The two had squared off a year ago in the World Cup relay in Oberhof, Germany, where Svendsen’s shooting errors allowed Malyshko to take the lead and Russia to win the race. That weekend, Malyshko had shown himself to be among the very small handful of biathletes who can match Svendsen’s ski speed.
But today, when the pair came into prone together, it was Malyshko who faltered, requiring all three spare rounds to clean his targets. Next to him, with one satisfying click after another, Svendsen cleaned quickly and was off on the course. Although he used a spare in standing, by that point he had enough of a lead that it didn’t matter and Norway still won the relay by 19 seconds. A hard-charging Swedish team passed the flagging Malyshko to secure second place.
“It was a good race,” Svendsen said. “I am finally starting to get into shape a little bit, and the shooting was quite good. So I’m happy with the performance and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
It was not always a smooth path to victory for Norway. Unusually, Svendsen had the best shooting of the bunch. Six-time World Juniors medalist Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen had used one spare round in prone and three in standing in his initiation onto the men’s relay team. This came one day after Christiansen had a poor performance in the sprint, tying for 54th place.
“I did a really, really, really bad race yesterday but this relay was already decided last week in Ostersund,” he said of his selection to lead things off for Norway.
Svendsen’s teammates and fellow World Champions Ole Einar Bjørndalen and Tarjei Bø used two and three spare rounds, giving the team a total of ten – the same number used by Russia and fourth-place Austria, although the top four teams all did manage to avoid the penalty loop.
Bjørndalen did the most to save the day. Despite his spare rounds (actually, almost the whole men’s field struggled in standing on the second leg), he moved the team into first place, mainly by setting an unmatchable pace first while he played catch-up – even after the last shooting he was still in fifth place – and then at the front of the pack. With Bjørndalen in charge, there was little tactical rest happening out on the course. More than in any other leg of the relay, it looked like a horse race, with the skiers reaching impressive speeds despite the fresh snow falling on the tracks. The weak were jettisoned as the fastest skiers flew past them.
“I think I’m in really good shape and I also felt really strong today,” the veteran said.
Perhaps the most surprising finish of the relay came when Carl Johan Bergman of Sweden blasted past Malyshko in the finishing straightaway. Despite the Russian’s best efforts, he just couldn’t shake Bergman – and it took too much out of him trying.
“To be honest, I wanted to run away from Bergman on the last ascent on the track, and I put all my power into it,” he said through a translator at the press conference. “But I couldn’t manage it. So in the final meters he could pass me and take second place.”
The affable Swede, before he became a World Championships medalist in 2012, was known as Sweden’s quick-sprinting anchor man. Bergman hasn’t been able to recapture his individual success from the 2012 season, when he won two World Cup races, but his spurt at the end of the relay was a reminder that he’s still a threat.
“Of course it’s good to have a good result,” Bergman said. “I have had some good races on the skis and some with shooting so far this season, but this is the first time we see it in the result list. So it’s fun to make a good result. But I have a good imagination so I can always see the positive things in bad races.”
It was a whole-team effort from Sweden, however. Christopher Eriksson used three spares in standing to start things off, and the team was a minute back in 16th place at the first handoff. But by the end, they had accumulated only five spare rounds – half the total of Norway, Russia, or Austria. Björn Ferry shot perfectly to move into 13th, while keeping the time gap even, then Fredrik Lindström used one spare and racked up the second-fastest course time of anyone on the third leg. With one spare round and a furious sprint from Bergman, second place was sealed.
When asked whether he was surprised to be on the podium, Eriksson – a new addition to the relay team, who has only scored individual World Cup points twice, both last season – didn’t flinch.
“It’s surprising, yeah,” he said, as Bergman laughed quietly beside him. “But it’s our goal to be on the podium, every time.”
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.