A lot of work goes into relay races, but most times, the only thing many people remember is the end.
That will probably be the case after today’s World Cup mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden. Many countries spent time at the lead – Finland, Canada, Belarus, and Slovenia among them – but by the time 27 kilometers and eight shooting stages had passed, it was down to some of the old favorites: Norway, Germany, and France.
Simon Schempp of Germany and Lars Helge Birkeland of Norway left the range in the lead, with seven seconds back to France. But superstar Martin Fourcade closed the gap almost immediately, and skied at the back of the group for most of the last 2.5 k loop.
Only going up the final hill did he attack and make a move towards the front. The three were still tightly grouped coming around the final downhill corner into the finishing stretch, where Fourcade made another aggressive move, shouldering Birkeland out of the way and pushing forward on the inside lane.
It looked like Fourcade had things wrapped up, and he started celebrating. But Schempp pushed hard as well, and Birkeland found his way to the outside lane and put in a huge surge to try to make his way back. It was a photo finish, although it was still fairly clear that Fourcade came out on top.
“The last part of this competition was the best advertising for the biathlon; the track is quite easy, so I wanted to wait until the end,” Fourcade said in a press conference. “I also had luck and at that point was quite confident.”
He must have been especially happy to discard once and for all the specter of last year’s competition, where he missed four targets in standing, forgot to use all his spare rounds, accrued a two-minute penalty, and otherwise blew a minute-plus lead that his team had carefully crafted for him.
Today, Fourcade was the hero.
“I believe in Martin and I trust him a lot,” first-leg skier Anais Bescond said in the press conference. “It was an amazing finish.”
“I trust in Martin,” agreed second-leg skier Anais Chevalier.
Birkeland’s smart tactics gave Norway second place, and Germany was left with third. While Norway started their top women (Synnøve Solemdal and Tiril Eckhoff), they rested their stars for the men’s team: instead of Emil Hegle Svendsen, Ole Einar Bjørndalen, or either of the Bø brothers, it was Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen and Birkeland.
“The final lap was a nice fight with Martin and Simon,” Birkeland said in a press conference. “The last corner was not so good; still I am happy with second place. My goal this week is to have a good individual competition and stay in the team.”
Neither France nor Norway were in contention in early in the race. For Norway, Solemdal had a terrible leg, using all three spare rounds in each of her two shooting stages, and additionally having to ski a penalty lap in standing.
“I am very sorry,” she told Norwegian broadcaster NRK, according to a translation. “I wish this had been an individual race. It was a black day… I’m not worried, I’m mostly just cursed. I rushed. I have to pull myself together and do things right going forward.”
After her leg, Norway was in 21st, over a minute and a half back. Eckhoff pulled the team up to 12th and Christiansen to sixth, but it was Birkeland who did the hero’s work, cleaning all ten targets without a single spare round.
France, meanwhile, was in the middle of the pack for most of the race. Bescond led off with a strong leg through the first shooting stage, but used spare rounds in standing and dropped to seventh. The team was tenth after Simon Fourcade skied the third leg. Then Fourcade took over – and brought the team to the top despite using two spare rounds in standing.
For a guy who is recently recovering from mononucleosis, that’s not half bad.
“With Fourcade, obviously everyone has talked a lot about how much training he missed this summer,” U.S. biathlete Tim Burke said in an interview. “But he’s obviously in top form.”
“I’ve now had two months of full training and had some doubts before start,” he said in the press conference. “Now I feel my shape is good and I am happy about that; I did a very good job in October and November…I am here doing biathlon because I love it; it should be a great sport with clean athletes!”
Russia, to whom he was probably referring with the “clean athletes” comment since Alexander Loginov was recently busted for using erythropoietin, finished 12th. The team had been in leading before Evgeniy Garanichev had a disastrous standing stage in the third leg and dropped to 20th place.
The German team skied a strong race, using two less spare rounds than the other podium finishers. Ukraine finished fourth, +31.6; Italy fifth, +45.5, based largely on extremely strong legs from its women’s team; and Slovenia sixth, +45.5.
The United States narrowly missed the flower ceremony, finishing seventh +48.6.
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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.