(Note: This article has been updated to include comments from Canada’s Scott Gow.)
The exact details of Martin Fourcade’s record book depend a bit on who you ask.
The official statistics of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) say the French biathlete got his 50th IBU World Cup victory on Friday in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
By his own count, he claims he already hit that milestone last week and this was his 52nd victory, including two gold-medal races at the Olympics, which the IBU does not include in its World Cup tally. By any measure Fourcade is very successful, making him two-for-two in sprint victories this season.
If he keeps competing long enough at such a high level, the 29-year-old Fourcade might be well on a trajectory to one day overtake the most successful biathlete of all time, Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen who has 94 and counting. Fourcade already surpassed his countryman Raphaël Poirée last season to move into second position on the all-time list of World Cup winners (he is also already ahead of the leading female biathlete of all time, Sweden’s Magdalena Forsberg, who has 42).
But back to the present: A sunny day with calm wind conditions and firm snow set the stage for excellent shooting, with more than 20 athletes staying clean in the prone and standing stages while cheered on by a few thousand enthusiastic fans in the stands in Pokljuka.
Leaving the range after his standing shooting, Fourcade trailed Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø by 0.5 seconds. But on that final lap, Fourcade asserted his current dominance on World Cup biathlon courses, crossing the finish line 13.7 seconds ahead of the Norwegian in a time of 23:11.7 minutes before briefly pumping his fist when he saw his result on the video wall.
“When I saw we were on the same time after the second shooting, I knew everything was possible,” Fourcade explained to German broadcaster ZDF in a post-race interview. “I had good times this year on the last loop, and so I was pretty confident about my chances to win when I heard [from the coaches] I was at the same time as Johannes.”
“During the last lap I heard I was almost at the same time as Martin after the second shooting,” Bø commented on that final lap during the press conference. “So I just had to speed as fast as I could, and yeah today it was [only] enough for second place.
“I think it was a good race under the circumstances…,” he added. “You see the result list today, it’s not so fun to be behind Martin again, but I am in front of Anton [Shipulin], Emil [Svendsen] and Simon Schempp, they are all very strong names… So I am happy with this race.”
“It was an amazing competition,” Fourcade told ZDF. “It was really hard, much harder than last week in Östersund. I am really proud to win today in spite of all the clean shootings [by other athletes]. I waited a long time for my first victory ever in Pokljuka.”
That last detail was important to Fourcade, stressing in his opening statement of the press conference that he now has won a race at every (regular) World Cup venue where he has competed.
“You know, I waited for a long time to win in Pokljuka. It’s the last site in the biathlon World Cup where I never won before,” he said. “So this is a special day for me.”
Shooting clean just like all the other top finishers, Russia’s Anton Shipulin claimed the third position on the podium (0+0, +15.1), able to defend a narrow lead to Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen after the final shooting stage on the last lap (0+0, +20.9).
This was Shipulin’s first podium finish of the new season, after placing third last year in the overall World Cup with seven podium finishes (excluding relays).
During the press conference, Shipulin stated via a translator that he was very motivated by the recent performances of his teammates.
“Of course I was very happy for the guys [Babikov and Tsvetkov, who placed first and second in the pursuit race a week ago] because they are also pretty new to the team,” he said. “And right away they had a super performance in Östersund.”
“The altitude plays its role,” Shipulin explained when asked about his race. “The tracks are a little bit difficult, especially during the last loop it was hard, but I managed it today and I am on the podium.”
Despite narrowly missing out on that podium finish, Svendsen was encouraged by his improving race results.
“I am happy with my performance,” he told the IBU in an interview. “A month ago I didn’t [even] think I’d be here. So I am happy with the way things are going, and I am on the right way.”
Starting with bib 88, Fourcade’s teammate Quentin Fillon Maillet became the closest challenger for the podium among the late starters as the race progressed. Also with two clean shootings, he left the range in fourth place, just 11.5 seconds behind the then-leader Bø and ahead of Shipulin, but lost further ground on the final lap and one more position to finish fifth (0+0, +27.0).
“I look at the results and see the strongest and toughest guys made it into the top ten,” Shipulin said according to a translator, when asked about Saturday’s pursuit at the press conference. “I think the race will be very interesting, and I will try my best.”
Five North American Men Qualify for Pursuit, Again
In a repeat from the previous World Cup weekend in Östersund, Lowell Bailey again achieved the best result of the North American starters on Friday. Like the top of the field, he managed to shoot clean, but his overall course time ranked 54th (out of 104). Bailey finished 1:13.3 behind Fourcade for 18th place (0+0), his fourth-straight top 20 in as many individual races held this season.
“I’m happy with the top-20 and hoping for my ski-speed to improve tomorrow,” Bailey wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
In a US Biathlon press release, he said he was satisfied with his shooting, but “didn’t feel great on the tracks. I hope I can bounce back tomorrow and work into the top ten.”
For Biathlon Canada, Scott Gow also shot clean in both stages, and despite starting out a bit slower, he managed to ski his fastest lap on the third loop to finish in 23rd (0+0, +1:16.7). It was the best World Cup sprint result for the Canmore resident, and second-best (excluding relays) following an 18th place in the individual at last season’s World Championships in Oslo, Norway.
“I’m happy to have raced back into the top 30. It was especially gratifying after a sub-par effort last weekend,” Gow said, according to a Biathlon Canada press release. “My goals are to have multiple top-30 results this year and hit some in the top 16 so today was a good start towards accomplishing those goals.”
Gow, 26, was one of more than 20 racers to shoot clean.
“I’ve been focused on maintaining a high shooting average for the duration of the season so I attribute my clean shooting to having good fundamentals, and being somewhat in the ‘shooting zone’ with no crazy environmental conditions to worry about,” he said. “After our poor start, our team and staff have been working hard to make sure everything is perfect. I think today was the culmination of everyone giving a little extra attention to all the important details.”
His younger brother Christian Gow also shot clean and finished in the World Cup points in 33rd (0+0, +1:30.9), for the best result of his career so far.
Teammate Brendan Green was 52nd with two misses (1+1, +1:55.6).
One position behind him, Bailey’s teammate Tim Burke finished 53rd despite three penalty laps (2+1, +1:58.4), thanks to skiing the 26th-fastest course time and his fastest loop of the day on the last loop.
The third U.S. starter, Russell Currier placed 65th with two penalties (1+1, +2:18.4), just missing out on the top-60 qualification criterion for the pursuit again and this time even by only five seconds.
Canada’s Macx Davies started out with a clean prone shooting stage and was shown by the international TV broadcast coming into his standing shooting bout with a competitive split time, but he missed two targets and ended up 80th (0+2, +2:58.4).
Biathlon Canada team veteran Nathan Smith did not start in Pokljuka on Friday, and for US Biathlon, Leif Nordgren and Sean Doherty are currently on the “injured reserve list”.
The times back to the winner from the sprint carry over into the pursuit race on Saturday.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting
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.