Weather in the mountains is unpredictable, and that certainly affected the World Cup biathlon field in Antholz, Italy, today.
At 11:45 in the morning, the women’s relay field set off, in unassuming weather; by the time the second-leg skiers had come into the range for standing, a massive fog had rolled in that made it impossible to see the targets. The race was cancelled, mid-go.
A few hours later, the men’s relay was delayed for 30 minutes and eventually started at 2:45 in the afternoon.
“First the zero was delayed because fog similar to what the girls faced rolled in,” Canada’s Scott Perras explained. “They knew the race had to start by 3 otherwise they would run out of day light, and Antholz is not like some of the other tracks that have night races. There are no lights on the course.”
It began raining when the men were zeroing – then it began to snow. Canada had as strong a start as anyone, with Jean Philippe Le Guellec cleaning all ten targets with no spare rounds. He left his standing stage in first place, but was overtaken by Germany, Norway, and France and tagged off in fourth place.
“My training block over Christmas had been cut short with the extreme colds out east,” Le Guellec explained in an e-mail. “As such, top race form wasn’t the priority for today and I definitely felt it on the last lap! Talk about red lining an engine… That was pure suffering.”
Le Guellec hopes that treating the race like training will allow him to tag off still in first if he’s in the same position in the Olympics.
“Peak form will be the goal for Sochi and if I have the luxury and honor to lead a lap, I’m sure hoping that my form will carry me to the wire then,” he wrote.
By the time the second-leg skiers like Perras took over up, thick flakes were falling all around them, slowing the track and obscuring targets. The difficult skiing took a double toll on the range.
“It was not easy shooting today,” Norway’s Henrik L’Abee-Lund told NRK television. “My legs were like jello.”
Andreas Birnbacher of Germany was in the lead coming into the standing stage, but used all of his spare rounds trying to knock down two pesky targets and still ended up skiing a penalty loop. L’Abee-Lund used two spare rounds and Perras all three.
“I missed my targets in standing because I was little excited and the shooting seemed more solid than I expected, so I put three shots quickly too high,” Perras said. “From there I just told myself to calm down and make sure I have stopped on the target before pulling the trigger.”
L’Abee-Lund moved into second behind Alexis Boeuf of France, the only one of the first group of racers to shoot clean. Despite using all three spare rounds, Perras escaped still in third position. It would have been surprising if he had been paying attention to his competitors, which he luckily was not.
“Honestly I was pretty focused on myself in the range,” he said. “I was aware that the others were missing when I was shooting, but there is no way to know if they would have penalty loops or not. There was pressure but we are getting more and more used to this situation which is great!”
As the skiers hit the trails, where snow was piling up in serious fashion, Boeuf looked especially beleaguered. He’d had the second-fastest first loop and the fastest second loop, but his final loop was just the 16th-fastest, more than 55 seconds slower over 2.5 k than Bjorn Ferry of Sweden, who had the fastest split. Known more as a shooter, Ferry was indeed perfect on the range, but was also the strongest skier and moved Sweden from 14th into fifth place.
“The start of my race was very good, but I had a big problem on my last lap,” Boeuf said in the press conference. “I hope it will be better in Sochi, we will see. Today it was just a personal problem.”
L’Abee-Lund blew by Boeuf to a 35-second lead by the handoff just 2.5 k later. Meanwhile, Perras tried to hold off Birnbacher, who finished up his penalty loop and made a move towards the front. He eventually passed Perras, who stuck with him until the exchange.
“On my last lap I had a big smile at first, not because I was happy with my shooting but the relief from hitting that last shot felt exhilarating,” Perras said. “I was happy to still be in the game I didn’t think too much about what place I was in. I didn’t know hat Birnbacher was coming but I could not have done much more. I was gassed from skiing the first two laps on my own and trying to catch the leaders. When he went in front I just focused on keeping up.”
The penalties continued to come fast and strong; on the third leg, Martin Eng took Norway out of the running with two penalty loops. On the fourth leg, Nathan Smith took two penalty loops of his own for Canada.
Instead, at the front, it was France and Sweden who battled it out on the anchor leg, with both Martin Fourcade and Carl Johan Bergman shooting perfectly.
“It was a really good fight,” Fourcade told the IBU in a video interview with the rest of the French team. “I wanted to drop him before the last loop, but Carl Johan was really strong on the shooting range, so I had to push really hard on the last loop.”
Bergman didn’t get demolished by the powerful Frenchman (who said that “my legs and my skis weren’t the best of the year today”), but he couldn’t overtake him either. France took a 2.6-second win in the relay.
Germany finished third, +38.8, and Norway fourth, +1:34.6. The Norwegian team was a “B” squad, as was the Russian team; the best racers from both countries are sitting out to prep for the Olympics.
“I’m just happy to have done well today, but you can’t forget that two of the best teams in the world (Norway and Russia) were not here,” Martin Fourcade told French newspaper L’Equipe. “The important thing, that will be in two weeks in Sochi. We will fight for the gold.”
Canada finished sixth, a best in the careers of any of the men involved. The team had been in fourth place at each of the first three handoffs (by Le Guellec, Perras, and Brendan Green) before dropping to sixth with Smith’s shooting woes.
“I think in general we are happy with today,” Perras said. “We had never made a prize ceremony and our previous best was a 7th place. So far this year we have been 9th, 8th and 6th so we are happy with the trend. I think the biggest thing we will take away from today is that we prevailed despite all the chaos, and we put a little more high pressure experience in the bank.”
Le Guellec agreed.
“Considering a lot of spares, two penalty loops and that our skis weren’t great either: it’s an amazing result,” he said. “This is by far the best battle laid out by the team yet… this is a new level (girls and boys). You can tell everyone has worked very hard in the summer to bettering themselves and it has hugely paid off. I don’t think anyone was expecting such strong performance though! Again: fuel going into Sochi.”
The U.S. did not field a team.
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.