On Sunday afternoon, French biathlete Jean-Guillaume Béatrix knew he was the luckiest man in Pokljuka, Slovenia, achieving the first International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup victory of his career in a men’s 15-kilometer mass start he hadn’t planned on racing. His place on the start list originally belonged to Austria’s Simon Eder, who qualified for one of 30 spots in the mass start based on his overall World Cup standing. But in the morning Eder did not feel well and had to decline his participation, with that start instead going to Beatrix as the highest-ranked athlete on a “standby reserve” list.
Beatrix made the most out of the opportunity that was handed to him, cleaning all four shooting stages as the only athlete in the field, and beating out Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen by 0.3 seconds in the finishing sprint to win in 35:33.7.
Third place just 2.5 seconds back went to Svendsen’s teammate, 41-year-old veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who in turn beat Germany’s Simon Schempp in a photo finish by mere inches.
In an up-and-down race closely watched by more than 6,000 spectators in the arena, many different athletes remained in contention for the podium for a long time, with the field sticking closely together due to excellent weather conditions that prompted few misses on the shooting range.
“This [race] was a perfect advertisement for our sport once again,” commented Germany’s men’s head coach Mark Kirchner in a post-race interview with TV broadcaster ZDF, himself a three-time Olympic gold medalist in biathlon. “When you consider that on the third loop about twenty athletes were still together within 14 or 15 seconds, you know how hard it is to focus on the shooting range because you know every miss will throw you back behind the top 20.”
At the halfway mark, US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey was in second place, in part due to two perfect prone shootings. But he could not hold onto that position after he missed two targets in the first standing stage, and then added another miss in the final shooting, ultimately coming in 23rd (+1:29.5), one position and just 0.5 seconds behind his teammate Tim Burke, who had four misses (2+0+1+1) and placed 22nd.
“Today was a little bittersweet,” Bailey wrote in an email. “On one hand, I was psyched that my ski speed had improved and I was able to hang with the lead group. On the other hand, I have felt good about my standing shooting all season, so it was frustrating to throw my chances away in that first standing stage.”
Canada’s Nathan Smith, who had placed ninth on the same course last season, also missed three targets (0+1+1+1) and finished 12th overall, 27.1 seconds behind Beatrix and 25 seconds off the podium.
“It’s pretty much a fact in biathlon that in order to medal in a mass start you have to shoot clean in the final standing,” Smith said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “I had one miss, which left me a penalty loop behind at the end.”
On the final loop after the last shooting, six athletes from three countries skied close together in a lead group, all vying for the podium after France’s Simon Desthieux had managed to close a small gap to his teammate Beatrix, Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher and Schempp, and Norway’s Bjørndalen and Svendsen.
About halfway through the loop, Svendsen charged ahead to break up the group, and only Beatrix was able to stay near the tails of his skis. The two came together into the finishing stretch, with Svendsen took the middle lane and Beatrix skied to his left. As Beatrix pushed toward the finish with elongated glides and no poles, he bested Svendsen — an athlete widely respected among his peers for his ski speed and sprinting — by three-tenths of a second.
This was Beatrix’s first World Cup win and fourth-career podium, after placing second in a pursuit in Antholz, Italy, and third in another pursuit in Sochi Russia, two seasons ago, and third in a sprint last season in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic.
“I didn’t think I could win as Emil was strong,” Beatrix recounted when asked about the finishing push at a post-race press conference. “He looked a little tired on the last downhill though. Thanks to good skis, I managed to make a nice finish.”
“It is nice to finish a year with a podium. It’s sad to lose on such a margin though,” Svendsen said. “I need some rest to be in my best shape, but mentally I am very motivated.”
Bjørndalen used his extensive experience and skied a controlled race, making all but two of his 20 shots and staying clean in the decisive final shooting (1+0+1+0). At the end of the last round he could not quite keep up with Svendsen and Beatrix, but he still had some reserves.
In a sprint for third place against Schempp, winner of the preceding sprint and pursuit in Poklujka who had also missed two shots in this race (0+1+1+0), Bjørndalen lunged across the line in what almost looked like a dead-even tie. The photo finish ultimately proved Bjørndalen beat Schempp by the tip of his boot for third. Both athletes were recorded as 2.5 seconds behind.
“The last sprint was very hard. I focused on the third place, but Simon was so close to me,” Bjørndalen described at the press conference. “I saw his shadow on the finish line and tried to move out my feet.”
“Right when I put forward my foot I noticed he was probably ahead of me,” Schempp told ZDF. “But still, this race was a nice conclusion [to the weekend], and now I’m looking forward to Christmas.”
Schempp’s teammate Birnbacher placed fifth, 7.2 seconds back. It was his best result of the season. Asked whether team tactics came into play on the last loop, Birnbacher told ZDF with a laugh: “Well, unfortunately I didn’t have any power left on the last climb. Andi [German assistant-coach Andreas Stitzl] yelled to us, ‘Stay in two and three and attack out of the wind shadow,’ but I just wasn’t able to do that anymore”.
France’s pursuit runner-up Martin Fourcade took seventh in the mass start, one behind his teammate Desthieux who was 11.4 seconds back, and also a bit behind his own expectations. Fourcade’s race got derailed early after he missed two targets in the first prone shooting, which set him back far in the field to 27th place. With two more misses later (2+0+2+0), and despite once again skiing the fastest course time of all athletes, he was never quite able to catch up to the leaders again, and finished 17.8 seconds back.
In the overall World Cup standings, Fourcade still remains in the lead after the first trimester of races with 384 points, ahead of Bjørndalen (337) and Schempp (331). Also in the top 30, Smith is currently in 12th with 175 points, Bailey is 21st (128) and Burke is 27th (108).
Misses Stunt North Americans
Similar to Fourcade, Burke missed two shots in the first prone stage, setting him back all the way to the 30th in last position at that time, out of the focus of the TV cameras. He was unable to fully make up that early deficit despite steadily improving on the next loops to reach 24th before the final loop. He skied the 17th-fastest last loop to finish 22nd overall.
His teammate Bailey and Canada’s Smith had more visibility on the broadcast, with Bailey moving to the front of the field for a while after he managed to clean the first two stages. On the third loop at 7.6 k he was skiing in second, just 0.5 seconds behind France’s Quentin Fillion Maillet, and entered the range in that position for the first standing. There, Bailey missed two targets and fell way back to 18th place, 49.1 seconds behind the leaders as he set out on his fourth loop.
“The pace was reasonable at the front of the race and at several points. It even slowed as everyone was jockeying for position,” Bailey recalled. “So, I can’t blame the misses on coming in too hard. Sometimes you just miss!”
After another miss on the last shooting stage set further him back, Bailey found himself in 22nd and 1:16.5 back, around where Burke had been skiing with throughout the race. On the final loop Burke caught up to him, then was able to narrowly beat Bailey by half a second to the line.
“I’m satisfied with the first trimester; a few good results, a couple of missed opportunities, but overall, a solid start,” Bailey wrote.
Smith skied fast on Sunday, with the 10th-ranked course time overall, despite one miss on each of the last three stages. After each penalty loop, he made up 10 seconds or more on the leaders to significantly reduce his time back on each loop. After the second shooting, he left the range in 13th place, 17 seconds out of first, then had already reduced that to 7 seconds by the first split time on the next loop and 5 seconds by the second timing point.
“After the sprint and pursuit I was worried about how my ski shape would be today. I had been feeling really lethargic on course,” Smith wrote in an email. “Thankfully today I was able to put out some solid ski speed. I ate an entire Toblerone and a large serving of chips yesterday evening. I’ll give some credit to that.”
But despite his fast skiing, the three penalties prevented Smith from making a push into the top 10.
“I was fine with the couple penalties earlier in the race, but I know that in the final shooting of every mass start 5/5 is a requirement if you want a medal,” he wrote. “I missed one. That’s biathlon.
“I was hoping to grab a top 6 or individual medal before Christmas, but on the other hand, the single mixed relay with Rosanna [Crawford] was a definite highlight,” Smith added. “My world cup overall ranking is also a lot higher than last year at this time. With a couple close opportunities already I think that I’m on track for a very successful next trimester. “
Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.