OSLO, Norway—Billed as a “thriller in the snow”, 2016 IBU World Championships certainly lived up to its moniker on Sunday afternoon, with hometown favorite Johannes Thingnes Bø winning a fierce battle for the final gold medal of the week as tens of thousands of fans roared in support.
As Bø and France’s Martin Fourcade battled back and forth, sprinting full speed for the final 2500 meters of the 15 kilometer race, the crowd shouted at every move. Would it be Fourcade? Or Bø? The pair was always seeking to pass each other, as Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, skiing in third, tried desperately to catch up.
From the beginning, it was a quest by Fourcade to finish his sweep of individual medals at the Championships; he had also won gold in the mixed relay. On the first loop, he put in a furious sprint up the Hellnerbacken, a steep and sustained climb made famous by Swedish cross-country skier Marcus Hellner in the sprint at 2011 FIS Cross-Country World Championships.
Only Simon Eder of Austria was able to go with him. But Fourcade missed, heading to the penalty loop.
After the second shooting the lead group was still almost 15 strong, and Fourcade was buried in the middle of it. Bø, meanwhile, was at the front. He picked up the pace and found himself with a small gap, which he ran with, building up a five or six second lead on the entire rest of the field.
By the Hellnerbacken, Lowell Bailey of the United States had cruised to the lead of the chase pack, boosted by fast skis. Sick of being trapped, Fourcade found his way behind Bailey – and then again attacked about halfway up the hill.
“I wasn’t surprised when he made that move, and I also told myself that I wasn’t going to react or match that,” Bailey said. “I know the way he races. Hats off to him for taking those risks, but I had a game plan that I wanted to stick to.”
When Bø came into the range, he shot as fast as he has shown he can – just 18.2 seconds from setup to leaving the mat, while most other men take 20, 25, or even close to 30.
It was a risk. Bø hit one, two, three, four, and then missed. He headed to the penalty loop but was fast enough to come out in eighth, just 10.6 seconds behind the new leader: Bjørndalen.
Bø caught the group, and so it all came down to the final shooting. Fourcade cleaned. Then Bjørndalen. Then Bø.
After making the comeback, could the youngest member of the Norwegian team reach all the way for a medal?
First Bø caught his teammate, and for a brief time they worked together: two men in the red, white, and blue of Norway, chasing down Fourcade to try to deny him that last gold medal.
“Today was a really strong performance by us three,” Bø said in the post-race press conference. “It was a hard fight on the last lap there with Martin and Ole. All were attacking for gold.”
But Bjørndalen couldn’t hang as Bø shot by and, to the delight of the crowd, caught on to Fourcade’s tails. It was still early in the loop.
The two men battled, back, and forth, and back again. Bø led into the long, twisting downhill to Hellnerbacken; in his draft, Fourcade was able to stand up by the bottom of the hill. But Bø insisted on still leading up the hill. Fourcade stayed with him, but wasn’t able to put in another uphill sprint.
With every passing meter, the race became more tactical and the crowd grew louder. Into the stadium Fourcade looked like he could make the pass, but Bø doggedly kept the lead. Up the hill behind the stadium, and then over the top, he put in a gap of just one second: enough that there was now daylight between the pair.
Amazingly, Bø managed to keep that gap down the hill into the stadium and all the way to the finish line.
“I didn’t think about the gold medal before I crossed the line,” Bø said. “I knew that Martin is also good in the finish. Ole was five seconds behind, so I knew I was either gold or silver. So I made it to the end, and now I’m here with a gold medal.”
Fourcade crossed the line 2.8 seconds behind, with Bjørndalen claiming bronze +6.7.
“I have to say I am lucky to finish in the sprint with him,” Fourcade said. “He already had to take the lead on the track because I was already exhausted… I had not my best shape today. I did the perfect competition to try to catch the win. It was a good strategy, having a couple of extra seconds going into the last loop. But one man was stronger than my strategy.”
Bjørndalen was happy with bronze, and dodged questions about whether he would retire after this season, saying he hadn’t come to a decision yet.
“I felt strong on the skis today, maybe the best day of the whole World Championships,” he said. “So I’m really happy with the result… I was in some World Championships in my career, but this is absolutely the coolest World Championships ever.”
For Bø, part of the gold medal was owed to strength on the skis. And part was owed to strength of the will and hunger for gold.
After doing a television and stadium interview, Bø headed back out onto the snow. Jogging into the finishing stretch, he raised his hands and led the crowd in a cheer. Then he kneeled down and kissed the snow.
“Martin is really strong this World Championships,” he said. “But today I was a little bit stronger than him in the track. I think my motivation for winning one gold was bigger than his for a fifth gold.”
Bailey and Burke End Championships on High Note
Although the medals were decided, there was still plenty of drama – even if the crowd had exhausted itself cheering for first place.
With fifteen clean shots, Bailey had been in contention for a podium until late. It came down to his final shot in standing, which he missed – nineteen perfect shots, and then one that sent him to the penalty loop.
He left the stadium in tenth and, after trying to make up ground, finished in tenth.
“I caught up to [Russia’s Anton] Shipulin, but he’s the best sprinter in the world,” Bailey laughed. “I had to try to do something, so what I tried to do was to push in the back of the loop so that it didn’t come down to a sprint, but unfortunately it didn’t work. I just did the best I could there.”
He wanted that one shot back, but overall he couldn’t complain. Finishing top ten just 41.7 seconds behind the leader was his best result of the season.
“I have to be satisfied,” he said. “Of course I would love to have that one shot back. But I was in it right to the end. But I’m happy with the top ten. I haven’t been in the top ten yet this year, so it’s great to end the World Championships on a high note. I don’t know what to say – that’s just the way it is. That’s how the sport is. You have to love it. You hate it, and you love it.”
And just under twelve seconds later, teammate Tim Burke joined him at the finish. Despite two missed shots in standing (one in each bout), he had clawed his way back into the hunt.
“It stayed so packed together the first three loops,” Burke said. “It’s kind of frustrating- it’s not the kind of race that I like. It totally took skiing out for over half of the race. If I had shot a penalty prone, I think I could have caught back up to the lead group. That’s how it goes with a really easy range approach. And when you’re in the back of a 20-person group, to try to pass, it’s impossible. So I ended up skiing three loops at threshold.”
Like Bailey, Burke felt he couldn’t complain about the result. But it in some way felt symbolic of his season, too.
“I’m happy with the races, I felt like I had some solid races, but once again it was missing that last shot to have a really good race,” he said. “It’s so competitive now, you can’t afford to have any mistakes. But on the other side of thigns, I feel like I have performed really well, maybe more consistently than I ever have. Last year was so disappointing for me. I was really up and down, more down than up, that I think that this was a really big step back up to where I should be.”
The men are still hungry as the World Cup moves to Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, for the final three races before the World Cup concludes.
Leif Nordgren also started for the U.S., but didn’t complete the race after missing six shots in the first three stages combined.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.