After skipping the last tour stop in Canmore, Alberta, Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø returned to the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup with a bang, winning the men’s 10-kilometer sprint on Thursday morning in Presque Isle, Maine, in a time of 24:38.8, with no penalties. It was the first World Cup race in the U.S. in five years.
“It’s never easy, but today I felt I had control,” Bø told the IBU in a post-race interview. “I was calm before the race, and also on the shooting range. I tried to do it like in training.”
The defending 2015 world champion in the sprint is now heading into the 2016 World Championships at home in Oslo, Norway, with a victory in the same discipline.
“It looks like it has been good for me, but who knows,” he said at the press conference on his decision to not make the long trip to Canmore, Alberta, last week for the previous World Cup. Instead, he trained for Oslo.
Asked why eight of his 10 World Cup victories came in sprints, Bø replied, “Maybe it’s because shooting is my weakness, and in the sprint there is only two [stages]. So there is a bigger chance for me to not miss so much.”
He achieved his clean shooting despite losing feeling in his fingers on the first loop due to the cold weather and his fairly thin gloves, he told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
“Without feeling I had to focus extra hard on the innermost black spot, maybe that was the thing that made it go so well,” Bø said according to a translation.
Starting very early with bib 3, France’s Martin Fourcade had one miss in the standing stage and initially took a 38-second lead at the finish (over Norway’s second starter Erlend Bjøntegaard) thanks to Fourcade’s fast skiing, with the eventual overall fastest course time.
After changing into dry clothes and waiting in the finish pen for a few minutes, Fourcade was passed by Russia’s Anton Shipulin, who started behind him in bib 16 and had two clean shooting stages. The Russian lost time to Fourcade on the final loop, but by the finish, Shipulin, who ranks second in the overall World Cup, had preserved a 1-second lead over Fourcade — the World Cup leader.
“I have competed here 10 years ago at the Junior World Championships,” Shipulin said at the press conference through a translator. “So I know the tracks, and they are quite good.”
Shipulin ended up second when Bø, the 25th starter, barreled through the finish 27.9 seconds faster, with both clean shooting and the second-fastest overall course time. That moved Fourcade into third (+28.9) and the top-three stood through the remainder of the 88-man race.
“Of course I am happy and satisfied with the race today,” Shipulin said. “I wasn’t as fast as those two guys on the track. But I did clean shooting, and the result was good … I hope I will get better for the World Championships.”
“My shape was really good today … The shooting range is not as easy as we thought,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “No wind today so that was good.”
“But I really was surprised by the sun; I think it was too much sunshine for my little blue eyes,” the brown-eyed Fourcade joked. “I had real difficulties on the shooting range. That is why I needed so much time in the standing shooting.”
Bø posted the best times after the first and second shooting stages, where he hit every target, and extended his lead to the finish over Shipulin. Despite placing third, Fourcade slightly added to his commanding World Cup lead, with 857 points to Shipulin’s 646.
“Johannes was simply a better biathlete today,” Fourcade said. “He shot clean, he shot fast, and [me and Shipulin] both know he will be one to beat for the World Champs.”
As the race progressed, Germany’s Erik Lesser in bib 54 had the best chance to reach the podium, thanks to two clean shooting stages.
He picked up speed throughout his three loops; after losing more than 20 seconds to Bø on each of the first two loops, he only lost 2 additional seconds on the last one. But overall, Lesser could not quite match the skiing performance of the top three and finished fourth, 45.9 behind Bø and 20 seconds off the podium.
“I was very timid on the first round, somehow insecure,” Lesser told German TV broadcaster ARD. “I felt a little tired, so I wanted to rather push towards the end. … The shooting range is not easy, in standing I had to rebuild my stance. You really have to pay attention. Everything is possible in terms of advancing or falling back.”
Behind Lesser, two Swiss athletes had their best results of the season, with Serafin Wiestner in fifth (+50.3) and Benjamin Weger (+52.5) in sixth place, both missing one shot in standing.
For Wiestner, a border police officer, it was a new personal best after previously finishing 24th in a sprint in Ruhpolding, Germany, earlier this year.
“We are really happy about this result,” Wiestner told the IBU. “The last weeks were not so good for us, for the whole team … It’s a really tricky course, but I like that.”
I had a really bad season until now,“ Weger added. “Almost [all] just bad races. So I am very happy to be back in top 10 now, the first time this season. I hope to continue like that now.”
Latvia’s Andrejs Rastorgujevs in seventh (+54.0) and Bø’s older brother, Tarjei, in eighth place (+58.9) also had just one penalty in standing, and stayed within one minute of Bø to achieve a good starting position for the pursuit on Friday.
Doherty Leads Three Americans in Top 20; Canada’s Perras 48th
American Sean Doherty returned to the World Cup on Thursday, in his first race since racking up three medals in as many races at Junior World Championships in Cheile Gradistei, Romania. At 20, he become the most decorated athlete in history of Youth/Junior World Championships in his final season as a junior.
Starting in the middle of the field in bib 42, Doherty was the youngest competitor in the sprint. He shot clean in prone, and then missed one in standing, having to ski a penalty lap. The top North American, he ultimately placed 13th for his career-best World Cup result, 1:16.2 behind Bø.
“My shooting today felt good, very in control,” Doherty, a New Hampshire native, wrote in an email. “The wind was manageable, it just came and went but was never too extreme. The range approach here is deceptively tough, and the wind conditions can be tricky but overall today was a good day on the range.
“I am really looking forward to the pursuit,” he added.
Shortly behind, another American Lowell Bailey placed 15th (+1:22.4), also with a clean prone shooting and one penalty in standing.
“The wind can definitely be a factor here as the venue sits on top of a plateau,” Bailey explained in an email. “But today, I think the biggest factor was the approach. It is one of the more difficult approaches [in the World Cup] and if you aren’t prepared for it, you will be surprised at the fact that you aren’t very recovered when you hit the mat.”
Earlier this week, Bailey provided a unique view of the Presque Isle courses for the IBU in a first-person video, skiing through the men’s sprint loop, the arena and the penalty lap (coincidentally, Johannes Thingnes Bø passed Bailey in the penalty lap during the video).
“A lot of transitions from downhills directly into steep uphills,” Bailey commented in the video. “So you have to be changing techniques all the time.”
“The snow here is very cold,” he said of the conditions. “You can hear it, kind of squeaking like Styrofoam. That makes it interesting for waxing. We’ll be on very hard cold wax. Very fine stone grinds with the ski base.”
In his email, he explained that the course was challenging, particularly with a “corkscrew” downhill section, with some ice beneath the snow. “You had to stay alert and react when your skis started to slip,” he wrote.
“I felt like an alpine skier,” winner J.T. Bø joked about the course in an IBU interview. “You had to ski at the very edge of the skis. It was really hard, but it was cool.”
“The two places are really different,” Fourcade said during the press conference, comparing Canmore with Presque Isle. “Canmore is huge mountains, and here we are more in the forest. I prefer the track here, but it’s hard to compare two sites.”
Also for the U.S., Tim Burke started early bib 6, missed one target in each of his shooting stages, but finished 20th (+1:32.7) as the second-best athlete with two penalties.
“I felt solid on the ski course today,” Burke wrote in an email. “It was not one of my best days, but I was able to keep a good pace for the entire race. This is an interesting course in that there are not really any big climbs, but on the other hand there is very little recovery because of the challenging downhills. This was my first time competing on this course and I really liked it.
“My shooting felt decent today and the two misses were very close,” Burke continued. “But two misses is obviously too much for the sprint competition.”
Leif Nordgren in bib 76 came in 65th (+3:02.6) with three penalties (2+1). Eleven seconds outside the top 60, he missed qualifying for Friday’s pursuit.
“The men were just really consistent, everybody close together and just the whole field for the top athletes, so it puts them into a very good place looking ahead for tomorrow’s pursuit race,” US Biathlon coach Jonne Kähkönen said in a phone interview with FasterSkier. “Hopefully Susan’s podium will give them another push.”
After the men’s race on Thursday, Susan Dunklee raced to second place in the women’s 10 k sprint to tie the best-ever result by a U.S. biathlete, male or female.
Canada brought some of its developmental team to Presque Isle, with the athletes prequalified for the World Championships in Oslo skipping the races and continuing to train at home in Canmore.
Originally Nathan Smith had planned to keep competing in Presque Isle, partly in order to defend his top 20 in the overall World Cup (he was 19th after the Canmore World Cup).
“It was a really last minute decision. I literally had my stuff packed and ready to load into the team van,” Smith told FasterSkier in an email. “I was already somewhat uncertain about going because my skiing has been lackluster the last few weeks. When I saw how potentially cold it could be [in Presque Isle] I decided that perhaps I should stay in Canmore to get some rest and refocus after a very demanding month of racing, travel, and all the extra energy spent at a home world cup. I’ll be cheering the team on from the comfort of my living room.”
Asked how he thought that might affect his place in the standings, he guessed it would drop him just outside the top 20.
Without the usual starters, Scott Perras achieved the best result for the Canadian men in the sprint on Thursday, finishing 48th (+2:36.0), with one penalty in both prone and standing, and qualified for the pursuit on Friday.
“Shooting was ok, I was a bit tight for prone but it was fine,” Perras wrote in an email. “Presque Isle can be pretty windy, today was just a slight breeze, almost perfect!
“Skiing felt ok, I expected to feel a little better for sure,” he added. “[The] course is fun, what makes it difficult is the fact that you climb for a couple minutes before you get to the biggest climb on the course. That and the fact there isn’t much time ever spent in a downhill tuck.”
In their first World Cup races of the season, Canada’s 21-year-old Carsen Campbell finished 78th (+3:45.9) with one penalty, Matthew Neumann, 26, was 82nd (+4:16.6) with three misses (1+2), and Matthew Hudec, 21, finished 88th (+5:18.6) with two penalties (1+1).
Every Course is Different
The World Cup returned to the U.S. and the Nordic Heritage Center in Presque Isle for the first time in five years since February 2011, when the World Cup also included races in Fort Kent, Maine. Back then, Fourcade placed second in the sprint to Germany’s Arnd Peiffer, who finished ninth on Thursday (+1:06.4) with one penalty.
Most athletes commented positively on the challenging course and arena, though some pointed out a few unusual details, mainly a utility building in the middle of the penalty lap making it difficult to see the competition.
“It’s pretty far around that little house, at least it feels that way,” Peiffer told German TV broadcaster ARD after the race, when asked about his penalty lap.
According to ARD’s play-by-play announcer, organizers recently measured the loop out at 155 meters, 5 meters longer than the IBU norm, but still well within the standards.
“Yes, it does feel long,” Bailey agreed in his email.
“The penalty loop definitely felt long to me but I’m sure they have measured it,” Tim Burke wrote in his email. “I think it’s just the fact that you can’t see through it, that makes it feel so long. That will be an interesting factor for the pursuit because you won’t be able to judge how many athletes are in the penalty loop.”
In contrast to that, Perras even observed some positive elements: “I don’t think the penalty loop feels any bigger, it actually skis quite well. Some penalty loops have really tight corners and you can’t really ski through the corners at all, you are almost skidding. And here there are fans in the penalty loop, how do you compete with that.”
Germany’s Lesser also noted in his interview with ARD that the shooting mats felt uneven, giving him slight problems to find his stance.
“I also felt that the shooting range mats slope towards the targets,” Burke agreed. “This is very unusual and hopefully they can fix this for the remaining competitions.”
“The shooting mats do seem to slope awkwardly,” Perras wrote. “Honestly I’ve seen this at a few ranges throughout the world. No two ranges are the same and I try to just focus on the target, besides my legs aren’t even the exact same length so don’t take my word for it.”
While not featuring quite as many people in attendance as some of the huge venues in Europe who are always on the World Cup competition calendar, there was still a good atmosphere at the Nordic Heritage Center on a weekday and in sunny weather. International athletes such as Germany’s Peiffer appreciated the support they received from the U.S. fans, many of them schoolchildren with rows of classes that had “adopted” different nations such as Germany, Italy, or even the small contingent from Romania, waiving flags and loudly cheering for the athletes.
“Those kids probably got a day off from school to come here,” Peiffer told ARD with a laugh. “But that at least means there is something going on [in the arena]. And they are cheering very enthusiastically, and the same for everyone. A very fair audience.”
“There is a lot of school kids here today and I hope they get inspired,” American Susan Dunklee told ARD in an interview after her race. “It’s a really great sport, and I think Americans haven’t fully discovered it yet.”
The World Cup in Presque Isle continues with pursuits on Friday and the men’s relay on Saturday and women’s relay on Sunday.
- 10 k sprint
- Andrejs Rastorgujevs
- Anton Shipulin
- Benjamin Weger
- Carsen Campbell
- Erik Lesser
- IBU World Cup
- Johannes Thingnes Bø
- Jonne Kahkonen
- Leif Nordgren
- Lowell Bailey
- Martin Fourcade
- Matthew Hudec
- Matthew Neumann
- Nathan Smith
- Presque Isle World Cup
- Scott Perras
- Sean Doherty
- Serafin Wiestner
- Tarjei Bø
- Tim Burke
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.