Martin Fourcade treated shooting on Sunday like a means to an end. The faster he could get through it, the better off he’d be as the first starter in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit on the last day of the IBU World Cup in Östersund, Sweden.
With a 28.3-second sprint win on Saturday, the Frenchman started 28 seconds ahead of the sprint runner-up, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic, on Sunday. Slovenia’s Jakov Fak was 29 seconds back in third, and another Czech Michal Slesingr left the start 10 seconds later in fourth.
Conditions were slightly better on the final day of competition than what competitors weathered on Saturday: “They’re still pretty bad, but they were definitely better than yesterday,” Canada’s Nathan Smith said on the phone after starting ninth, skiing into the top three before the last shooting stage, then placing 16th in the pursuit.
Smith noted the pursuit course had one fewer technical downhill than the sprint, but said organizers apparently scraped snow from the corners of the trail to beef up the middle.
“On your last lap, you’re, like, ‘OK, I gotta stay on my feet,’ because you’re tired, but it wasn’t as scary as in the sprint,” he said.
In the range, it was typical Östersund: a little windy as usual. Fourcade, for one, had trouble — or maybe he was just rushing to stay ahead.
On the first prone, he missed his first two shots. Then he looked up.
“I didn’t [understand] why, but I wasn’t surprised,” Fourcade told reporters in a press conference after the race. “I saw that it was not a good beginning so I tried to get some information from the big screen.”
He learned he was aiming too far right, corrected it and hit the next three targets.
But after the first stage, Fourcade was already playing catchup. Jak had cleaned and was 8.1 seconds ahead. Fourcade made up the lost time quickly on the following lap, coming within 1.7 seconds of him at 4.6 k before entering the range together.
There on the second prone, Fourcade missed one for another penalty loop. Fak cleaned and so did Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev, who started fifth and left the range in third. Then there was Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who started eighth and cleaned the first two stages as well, and Russia’s Anton Shipulin —all four of which were ahead of him. Fourcade was 23 seconds out of the lead with three laps and two shooting stages to go.
On the heels of Garanichev and Shipulin at 7.1 k, approaching the range for the first standing, Fourcade was up to fourth, 23.8 seconds behind Jak. He was the only man in the top six with any penalties whatsoever — and Smith was the sixth man, 38.1 seconds behind the leader.
With the pressure on, Fourcade cleaned. Jak missed one, and Smith hit all his targets to head out on the course in third right behind Fourcade, who was 15 seconds behind the Slovenian.
The experience of racing in the top three of a head-to-head race wasn’t totally unusual to the 28-year-old Canadian.
“Last year in one race, I was second for one lap, but it was earlier in the race, so I’d say today I was definitely closer because it was down to the last shooting that decided it,” Smith reflected. “It’s pretty exciting, but also, I don’t know, you feel a bit out of your league. Hopefully I’ll get more experiences like this and I’ll get more used to it so I’ll feel more comfortable.”
By 8.8 k, Fourcade passed him, and Smith was 19 seconds back in third. Just under a kilometer later, Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen overtook Smith and led him, Shipulin and two Germans — Simon Schempp and Andreas Birnbacher — into the range for the last time.
Meanwhile, Fourcade was 20 seconds ahead with Fak. While Fourcade faltered in the second standing with one miss, he handled the pressure better than most: Fak missed two and Smith, who entered the stadium in fourth, missed three to tarnish his perfect shooting up to that point.
“Basically every lap, I was shooting really well, cleaning, and I was shooting quickly so I was making time in the range every loop,” Smith said. “But I was still trying to ski my own race out on the course. I know I’m not as fast as Svendsen or Fourcade, but I was trying to make up the time I lost there in the range and it was working. But on the last shooting, I don’t know, maybe the nerves got the best of me and I missed my first three. I thought I was going to miss four, but thankfully I didn’t.”
Smith dropped to 14th, 1:20.6 behind Fourcade in first. The 26-year-old, five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist left the range 10 seconds ahead of Shipulin, who cleaned the last stage to move to second.
“The last loop was hard with him on my back,” Fourcade said. “I was quite confident, but I looked back, too.”
“Leaving the shooting range, I had my mind set on catching him, but soon realized it was not possible,” Shipulin told reporters.
The Russian had started sixth, 48 seconds behind Fourcade, and emerged as the best shooter in the eventual top four with a single penalty. Fourcade had four total, but when he crossed the line uncontested, 10 seconds ahead of Shipulin, all that mattered was he won.
“The shooting conditions weren’t easy so I’m happy to succeed. Some guys did really well,” Fourcade said. “I had some mistakes, but it was good enough to win.”
Svendsen, with two misses, ended up third (+26.3), and Fak, with three penalties, finished fourth, 0.4 seconds off the podium. One-tenth of a second later, Austria’s Dominik Landertinger placed fifth after starting 30th and rocketing toward the front with a single miss on the last standing. Sixth through eighth place had a single miss, with Schempp, Birnbacher and Norway’s Alexander Os finishing in that order. France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix took ninth with two penalties, and Bjørndalen was 10th with three misses.
The lone Canadian to qualify for the pursuit after placing ninth in Saturday’s sprint with clean shooting, Smith settled for 16th, 1:30.9 behind Fourcade.
“After missing three, I definitely lost a bit of steam,” Smith said. “I was definitely tiring a bit on the fourth lap, though. I still fought hard on the last lap, but if it would’ve been for a podium, I’m sure I could’ve mustered a bit more.”
He explained he tried to ski his own race throughout the five-lap pursuit, and focus on his strengths in fast shooting. That led to him lose about 10-seconds per lap on the leaders, but he ended up with the fifth-fastest range time. Fourcade’s range time ranked seventh overall, after posting the second-fastest time in the second bout and top range time in the last one.
Smith’s final stage was his slowest all day by about four seconds.
“That might’ve been a mistake — If you slow down sometimes you have more time to let thoughts creep in, distractions,” he said. “I mean, it was awesome shooting other than the last one. I’m still pretty happy with it.
“It’s nice to know that the possibility’s there so hopefully I have some more chances this year,” he added. “In one of them, I’ll hit those last targets.”
While Fourcade racked up back-to-back victories in Östersund, Svendsen remains the overall IBU World Cup leader by 44 points over Fourcade.
After Sunday’s race, he said the yellow bib was a bit of a curse.
“Now I have to defend it,” Svendsen said. “I will try to do that for as long as I can, but I know Martin will be there. If I lose it, then I will focus on the World Championships.”
For Fourcade, the World Cup opener turned out to be a confidence booster.
“The most important thing I am taking away from here is confidence,” he said. “I wanted some personal answers and now I have them.”
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.