Despite the best efforts of his competitors, it appeared French biathlon star Martin Fourcade was almost his own worst enemy in Saturday’s 12.5-kilometer World Cup pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria.
In a scene reminiscent of Norwegian cross-country skier Heidi Weng’s mistake in Kuusamo earlier this season, Fourcade, who was being followed closely by Germany’s Simon Schempp and Russia’s Anton Shipulin, nearly skipped his final shooting stage. He was saved, though, because as he turned towards the finishing stretch, he saw his two competitors ski toward the range again. He very quickly realized his mistake, and followed them, keeping his focus to clean the final stage.
After that he never looked back until he finished first in 31:19.9, pounding his chest and pointing to the crowd as he did so. Schempp finished 8.9 seconds later in second place and Shipulin was 19.1 seconds back in third to round out the podium.
During a post-race press conference, Fourcade had no comment on his nearly-disastrous wrong turn. But Schempp, who suspected a mistake mused it might just have been a move by Fourcade to avoid having to go on the first position on the shooting range.
“It was a wonderful victory at the site of the next  World Championships,” Fourcade told the IBU. “My fan club, my family, is here, and it was a really good fight. I love to win, but I love to win more when the opponents are really strong. Today it was a great fight, which is why I’m so happy to succeed.”
For most of the race, Friday’s sprint runner-up Fourcade had struck with or been within a few seconds of sprint winner Schempp and Shipulin, who started fourth. After taking the control of the pursuit, each with two clean shooting stages, Schempp and Shipulin at times slowed down considerably on the track, skating next to each other with Shipulin gesturing wildly for Schempp to take his turn in front, but the German was seemingly unwilling to set the pace.
This posturing enabled a few athletes, including Fourcade, to close the gap to them again, after Fourcade had missed two targets in the second shooting. But he, too, didn’t want to take the lead.
All three athletes managed to leave the crucial last shooting stage without a miss. Fourcade shot the fastest, and Schempp entered the final lap about five seconds later, with Shipulin 12 seconds behind. They tried everything in their power to catch Fourcade, but to no avail.
“I am happy about the second place,” Schempp told the German broadcaster ARD, “but it was a complete psycho race. Like Martin not wanting to go in front, then attacking just ahead of the shooting, then he wanted to skate into the finish…”
“It was not so easy for my brain. Topsy-turvy, but that’s part of the game,” he added. “It was a fine competition [for me] with one miss on the shooting range. And of course I’m happy with the second place.”
Both athletes complimented their fierce competition afterward.
“I gave all I had in the beginning of the loop,” Schempp said in the press conference. “The gap was the same a long time, but at the last hill, Martin was very strong, so I had to defend my second place to Anton.”
Fourcade echoed those remarks after swapping positions with Schempp in two races between Friday and Saturday.
“Simon showed me on the last lap it was necessary to do my best,” Fourcade said. “This week I had to give 100 percent. It was a great fight between us.”
Shipulin also expressed his satisfaction with his first podium of the season.
“I realized those are my conditions and I’m getting better and better compared to the first leg in Östersund,” he said through a translator. “I still have to work hard on my form, but I’m really glad this is the first podium for me, and I’m doing better and better race by race.
“I have always loved pursuits,” Shipulin added. “Of course, I was a bit disappointed [Friday] with the fourth place, but I only tried to pay attention to today and in the end the podium is a good result.”
Last week at the World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, Schempp struggled mightily with the windy range, missing the pursuit after placing out of the top 60 in the sprint.
Asked before Saturday’s race how he coped and turned a difficult situation into a sprint victory on Friday, Schempp revealed his latest training secret to ARD: last week, he had worked with his home-team coach and assistant national-team coach Andreas Stitzl, using a leaf blower to simulate strong sudden gusts of wind.
While he acknowledged Fourcade’s strong performance in the two Hochfilzen individual races, Schempp was not too pleased with a scene that happened during the final shooting stage. He claimed Fourcade, who was next to him, nicked Schempp’s ski poles on the mat between his legs while Fourcade left the range.
“You have to be able to focus on yourself, but of course you notice what happens left and right,” Schempp told ARD. “I noticed Martin had hit everything in the last shooting, he was a little bit faster than me. And then when he was leaving, he hit my ski poles good, while I still had one shot. That brought me out of my rhythm a little bit, but thank God I hit it. Then on the last round I tried everything, but there was nothing left.”
Schempp reiterated this irritation in his post-race interview with the IBU: “I was not calm every time. It was a psycho race. You have to be calm.”
Norway’s Tarjei Bø, who had started the pursuit in third, always kept the leaders in viewing distance but couldn’t quite catch them in the end, finishing with two penalties (0+1+0+1) and missing the podium by 12 seconds (+31.2).
With about 8,000 spectators in the stadium and lining the course in the Austrian Alps, local fan favorite Dominik Landertinger managed to move up eight positions with a single miss, finishing fifth place (+39.8), ahead of Norwegian stars Ole Einar Bjørndalen (+57.5) and Emil Hegle Svendsen (+59.5).
Landertinger told the Austrian television broadcaster ORF that he’s been struggling with the recent death of his mother and wished she could have been there to see him.
“Everything I had to go through in recent weeks, I can tune that out pretty well during the race,” he said. “I have a great family with everyone supporting each other, but this has been a hard time for me.
“That was a very good race. I came through the shooting great. I achieved exactly what I had set out to do. Focus just on myself,” Landertinger added. “But for the podium I should not have had that miss. You’ve got to be satisfied, there are so many good guys here.”
Bailey Just Outside Top 10
Of the eight North American men in Saturday’s pursuit, US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey came closest to a top 10 after starting 12th and briefly moving into eighth with two clean prone stages. He skied the third lap in a fairly large chase group with six other athletes, but after missing a target in the first standing, Bailey fell back to 13th.
From there, the 34-year-old Bailey pushed to hang on up two climbs on the course. After cleaning his final standing stage, he left the range for a last time in 10th place, just between Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher and Slovenia’s Jakov Fak. Bailey faded a bit on the last loop, and in the finish he had given up the positions he previously gained on the shooting range, ending the day in 13th place (+1:20).
“Today was a great indicator of how strong the current men’s World Cup field is,” Bailey said in a US Biathlon press release. “I feel really good about my race today, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to hold or improve my starting place. Some days the field is just that strong and you just have to live with the result. Still, I’m happy with another top-15 and excited for the relay tomorrow.”
Biathlon Canada’s Nathan Smith ended the day in 18th (+1:48.4) — the same position he had started in — with too many penalty laps preventing a better result. Smith missed two targets in the first shooting, then cleaned the next two stages before adding another two penalties in the last standing to his tally. His skiing remained strong, posting the fifth-fastest time on the final lap for the 13th-best course time overall.
On Friday, Smith had predicted “some spectacular crashes” in the pursuit, due to the difficult snow conditions on the course. Crashes didn’t decide the outcome of Saturday’s race, but indeed, there were some victims. Germany’s Daniel Böhm careened off the course on the third lap in a downhill hairpin turn, then struggled back to his feet and onto the elevated track. Worse yet, in addition to the lost time, Böhm damaged his rifle in the crash and had to switch to the official reserve each team has in store during a race. However, as he explained after the race, that replacement rifle has a generic fit, rather than being fitted to any one athlete. Böhm went on to miss three shots between the last two standing stages, ultimately falling nine spots to 55th (+6:14.2).
Tim Burke achieved another top 30 for the U.S., moving up three spots to finish the day in 27th (+2:38.5). He cleaned the first two prone stages, before missing three on the next two (0+0+2+1) and crashing, which set him back farther.
“I had a great start to the race today with two clean prone stages and solid skiing,” Burke wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, I had a huge crash on the third loop and lost a lot of time. This definitely took a little wind out of my sails.”
He was cheered on by his wife, retired German biathlete Andrea Burke (formerly Henkel), who attended the race with a few friends from her national-team days.
“Considering [the crash], I was very happy to still move up a few places,” Burke continued. “I was really happy with my skiing so far this week. It was a big improvement from Ostersund and I feel like I am back to my normal ski form.
“I am pretty banged up from the crash today,” he added. “But am hoping to feel better for the relay tomorrow. Everyone seems to be in good shape, so anything is possible!”
A third American, Sean Doherty started 45th and ended the pursuit in 35th (+3:24.8). He missed six (2+1+1+2) while skiing the 23rd-fastest course time. Leif Nordgren placed 52nd (+5:27.1) for the U.S., with three misses in the first shooting and five in all (3+0+1+1).
Canada’s Christian Gow moved up 20 spots to finish 39th (+3:43.1) after having missed two targets and cleaning both standing stages (1+1+0+0), while his older brother Scott Gow missed six targets (2+3+1+0), and dropped 12 places to end the day in 45th (+4:23.8).
Racing continues in Hochfilzen with the four-person relays on Sunday.
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