No part of Sunday could be described as “easy” for anyone racing the IBU World Cup pursuits. A little new snow and some wind had been in the forecast for the last day of racing in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, and that seemed manageable.
Overnight, nearly half a foot of snow fell. Then, on Sunday afternoon, came the snow squalls, sporadically and unforgivingly, with increasing blizzard-like conditions making for a miserable-looking women’s race.
Heavily falling snow jammed rifles, and some women crossfired, like Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand, who was in the top five until shooting at the wrong targets in the final stage. She then skied the wrong number of penalty loops and was penalized six minutes, relegating her to 50th out of 51 finishers.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic’s own Veronika Vitkova desperately tried to get the attention of race officials to reset her targets — the ones Hildebrand shot at. The technical delegate for the weekend, Max Cobb (also US Biathlon’s CEO) explained that video cameras in the range revealed Vitkova lost 52 seconds amid the confusion, and the jury deducted that from her final time, which put her in 11th overall.
And all that happened before the men’s race even started.
Canada’s Nathan Smith was ready for an equally slow-and-painful 12.5-kilometer men’s pursuit. He had seen blue skies during zero shift to snowfall during his warmup, amounting to a centimeter or so on the ground before the gun went off.
Fortunately, it lightened up to “a medium snowfall” for most of the race, he explained, up until the another big squall blew through on Smith’s final lap.
“Thankfully, I only had to deal with that for half a lap,” he wrote in an email.
But what a half a lap it was. After starting seventh, 38 seconds behind Saturday’s sprint winner Jakov Fak of Slovenia, Smith leapt to fifth with a clean first prone. Fak cleaned as well, as did France’s Martin Fourcade, who started fourth, Germany’s Simon Schempp, who started second, and the Czech Republic’s Michal Slesingr, who started fifth, respectively.
Smith, who posted a career-best seventh on Saturday, established himself behind them in fifth after the first shooting, 40.7 seconds after Fak. The top-12 men to leave the range all came out with perfect shooting.
Conditions were initially more favorable than the women’s race, with light snow and a slight-yet-variable wind.
But the weather gradually intensified, and with each passing shooting stage, the pressure picked up as well.
The 29-year-old Smith handled it like never before — cleaning all four stages for 20-for-20 shooting and keeping himself squarely in the top-six throughout the race.
“I was pretty nervous on the last standing, but channelled my previous fails to make sure I diligently aimed at the targets,” he wrote.
He focused on relaxing his left arm in prone and his left hand in standing — which worked.
After the last standing, Smith headed into the final lap in fifth, 5.2 seconds behind Ukraine’s Sergey Semenov in fourth and 22.7 seconds behind Fak, who was still in the lead despite a single miss on the last stage.
(Fak completed his penalty loop just as Fourcade was leaving the range after cleaning his fourth-straight stage. Fak led the Frenchman into the last lap, where he extended his gap on him over the next 2.5 kilometers.)
Meanwhile, Smith simply needed to hold his position to set new World-Cup best, but that wasn’t easy, either.
“The Ukrainian [Semenov] and I had been skiing pretty similarly whenever I saw him,” Smith explained. “I tried my best to gain time but was a lot more concerned that someone might come up from behind.”
With 20.6 seconds separating Smith from sixth place (with Germany’s Erik Lesser) after the last stage, the Canadian skied the fifth-fastest course time on the last lap to secure fifth. He crossed the line 24.1 seconds after Fak, who proved untouchable on Sunday with a winning time of 37:24.9.
“I never started a pursuit in first and won so I am happy that I did that,” Fak told the IBU. “I wanted to shoot clean but do not have much experience shooting on lane one, so maybe next time I can do it.”
Fak’s 19-for-20 shooting and second-fastest overall course time was enough to hold off Fourcade and Schempp, who missed one on the second prone, by 4.4 seconds. Fourcade hit each one of his and was in contention for second until the last climb, where Fak attacked to drop both him and Schempp. The German proceeded to pass Fourcade about halfway up, accidentally stepping on Fourcade’s ski to leave the Frenchman staggering for a moment — a moment he couldn’t get back.
Fourcade let up and casually finished third, 8.9 seconds behind Schempp and 13.3 seconds after Fak. Semenov hung on to fourth, another seven seconds later, and Smith finished 3.8 seconds behind him in fifth.
With Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev in sixth (+45.6), the top-six men walked together to the following flower ceremony, where Fourcade patted Schempp on the back, indicating no hard feelings.
“It was not easy on the tracks; there was only one spot that was fast,” Schempp later told the IBU. “I had no other chance to pass him. We talked it over and it is okay.”
For Smith, the ceremony itself marked his season-long goal.
“It feels awesome to achieve that and especially when the other guys up there are the perennial biathlon top dogs,” Smith explained of his new career high.
In addition to a bouquet and a glass vase Smith estimated weighed 20 pounds, “It won’t be so great for travelling with,” he joked, Smith also received 3,500 Euros for sixth, roughly $4,000 U.S. dollars.
On any other day, with 20-for-20 shooting, he felt he could have been on or certainly closer to the podium. Fourcade and Semenov also cleaned all four stages just ahead of him.
“Today was a little unlucky for me as the top-three men were basically the Overall World Cup leaders,” Smith told Biathlon Canada, referring to Fourcade, Schempp and Fak, who rank first, second and fourth in the overall standings, respectively. “If a couple of them faltered I could have been there, but it is tough to beat the best when they are on 100 per cent. I know though if you’re only a couple of places off the podium enough times, one day it will happen.”
For the first time in his career, the Canadian also notched back-to-back clean races. He came close last year at the Sochi Olympics, with 29-out-of-30 shooting between two races, but completed the feat on Saturday and Sunday, knocking down 30 consecutive targets.
“Today is extra special because it is the first 20/20 clean of my biathlon career,” Smith added. “It feels awesome to have that success. It makes skiing less of a chore, and you’re excited to get back to the range after the next lap.”
In an email, Canada’s head coach Matthias Ahrens observed that Smith was more mentally prepared for the pressure situation he faced on Sunday, than when he found himself in third coming into the last shooting earlier this season in Östersund, Sweden, and ended up 16th.
“He keeps it cool, he is a pretty quiet guy but lots of thinking in his preparation,” Ahrens wrote.
“The skill and control he demonstrated is exactly what we expect to see from an athlete hungry for medals at world cup and world championship competitions,” wrote Chris Lindsay, Biathlon Canada’s high-performance director, in an email. “Both he and Brendan [Green] have taken on the leader roles within the team now that more of the younger athletes are being introduced to the World Cup. This leadership is most important when it is expressed though performance like we saw today.”
The second of three Canadian men in the pursuit, Green started 22nd and finished 30th (+3:13) with three penalties, one on his second prone and two more in the last stage.
“For me the hardest part today was the skiing,” Green wrote in an email. “It’s a tough 2.5km course to begin with and the conditions today made it a really slow grind. I had some tough luck with my skis today. It wasn’t an easy day for the wax techs in those conditions and I ended up on a pair of skis that just didn’t want to glide.
“We’re all still a little baffled as to why that pair wasn’t gliding well but after chatting a bit we have a few ideas,” he added. “It’s a lesson learned and we’ll get it right in these conditions next time!”
In the range, he recalled a “fairly consistent wind” each time he shot.
“I think I managed it well,” Green wrote. “I would have been happier with one less miss in my last standing bout but 17/20 was decent for today.”
Canada’s 22-year-old Macx Davies started 54th and finished 54th (+9:01.5) with nine penalties (2+3+2+2).
Nordgren 20th for Career-Best Pursuit
Coming off an all-time best 16th on Saturday, Leif Nordgren again led the U.S. in 20th on Sunday. He finished 2:37.9 behind the winner with three penalties, one on each prone stage and one more in the last standing.
“I felt pretty good today, definitely tired from 3 days of racing, but not bad,” Nordgren wrote in an email. “One nice thing about starting the pursuits a little higher up is that there’s always someone to ski with and catch a good draft. I think for almost every loop I just skied behind whoever I happened to exit the range with.”
Nordgren started 1:05 after Fak with Russia’s Matey Eliseev. With an initial prone miss, the American slipped to 21st, then was 25th leaving the second prone. He worked his way back to 21st with a clean standing, and was 19th leaving the range after one last penalty on the final shooting. Overall, Norgren posted the eighth-fastest range time.
“I was sort of welcoming these conditions,” he explained. “Anytime there are these types of winds in a pursuit race is a really good opportunity to move up in a pursuit race, much like last week in Otepaa [where he skied up from 51st to 19th in the pursuit].
“I was pretty happy with where I ended up, but it should have been better,” Nordgren added. “I made 3 mistakes on the shooting range, 2 of them were really stupid mistakes that I shouldn’t have made, and two more hits would have put me a few places higher. … It’s my best ever pursuit result, but knowing it could have easily been better makes it bittersweet.”
After Nordgren, Tim Burke started 38th and placed 37th for the U.S., 3:37.8 back with four penalties (1+2+1+0). Nineteen-year-old Sean Doherty started 57th and finished 45th (+5:02.1) with four misses as well (2+1+0+1).
“I think the best days of the season are still ahead of us,” Cobb wrote. “Just under a month to go until the World Champs.”
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.