Just like in the women’s sprint earlier on Saturday, drastically improved wind conditions compared to earlier in the week at the International Biathlon Union’s (IBU) World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, required the athletes to shoot extremely well if they wanted to have a place on the podium in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint on Saturday.
France’s Martin Fourcade again did it the best, shooting clean in the two stages and skiing just as fast as all week to cross the line in a time of 23:31.9 minutes, adding his 51st victory to his records right after he achieved the big milestone of 50 wins in the individual race on Wednesday.
Despite starting early in bib 11, Fourcade knew no other athlete was likely to beat him in his current race shape when he manages to shoot no penalties, celebrating with both arms raised high as he crossed the line. And he immediately set his sight on another goal: winning three races in a row, four if you count his win in the single mixed relay.
“It is much harder than it looks on TV,” Fourcade told German broadcaster ARD when asked about his frequent victories. “I don’t have a secret. It is very difficult for my body and for my mind. … I don’t want anybody to understand it the wrong way, but yesterday I knew I will win today … I didn’t dream it, I wasn’t sure. But I had to win. The last six years I always won two races here in Östersund. Maybe I can win the third race [this year]. But it will be tough. I have no more energy left. I am feeling empty.”
“Conditions today were very different [from the individual race],” he later explained during the IBU press conference. “It was much more difficult for the athletes to reach a good speed. … But my shoot[ing] today was perfect, and it wasn’t in the individual, so I am a bit more satisfied today. … I try not to think about my opponents during competition. I am really focused on what I have to do. Today was a big battle against myself, and I am satisfied that I won.”
Germany’s Arnd Peiffer had posted the first significant lead. Then he was replaced at the top by Fourcade, and still had to wait in the finish pen for his teammate Benedikt Doll, who had missed a shot in the standing stage but was faster than Peiffer on the course. In the end, Doll crossed the line a mere 0.5 seconds behind him.
When the race already looked like the podium was divided between those three, Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström became another athlete to shoot clean and ski fast (0+0). He went out on the final lap in third place, coming onto the finish stretch to huge cheers from the home crowd audience in Östersund when he still managed to beat Peiffer by two seconds for second place (+41.5), bumping Peiffer to third (0+0, +43.6).
“He deserved it, didn’t he?” Peiffer exclaimed, who had just been waiting in the mixed zone for his post-race interview with broadcaster ARD when Lindstroem came to the finish. “First of all I am happy that it worked out so well for me today. And if I stand on the podium in the end, I absolutely can’t complain.”
(“My individual was not so good,” Peiffer added during the press conference. “So I am really satisfied about this result today. I had an early number, so I didn’t know about anything that happened and just tried to make a good race… Today I shot clean, and that’s always what we try to do.”)
“Today was really great,” an excited Lindström commented on his race during the press conference. “The shooting was perfect. The conditions were much better than in the individual race. I don’t think I was the fastest athlete on the range, but I was really focused, I really wanted to hit them all … I had a lot of family and friends in the stands, and they helped me.”
“Last season was a real struggle,” he added. “The last competition was my only top ten result. This year I start with two top tens, so I am really happy with the start… Our whole team has had a great start, on the women’s side and now also for me.”
Peiffer’s teammate Doll was not so amused to still lose his seemingly secure third place to finish fourth (0+1, +44.1).
“I’m a little annoyed, I would have liked to stand on the podium,” Doll told ARD. “It looked good for a while. The 0.5 seconds to Arnd [Peiffer] don’t hurt so much, but I would have liked to not have Fredrik [Lindström] ahead of me.”
Austria’s Julian Eberhard finished fifth despite two penalties (1+1, +46.0), narrowly beating Fourcade by 0.7 seconds for the fastest course time.
“Today I was at my limit and got out one-hundred percent in both my shooting and course times,” Eberhard said in a press release by the Austrian Ski Association. “Unfortunately the two misses happened, but I had to take some risk and knew that a lot was still possible. I had great skis and gave it my all on the final lap.”
Five North American Men Qualify for Pursuit
Lowell Bailey achieved the best result of the North Americans on Saturday. He managed to shoot clean and skied the 28th-fastest course time, ultimately finishing 13th (+58.7), 1.4 seconds out of the top 10.
“It was an exciting race today,” Bailey commented, according to a US Biathlon press release. “It is unbelievable how competitive this men’s field is this year. I felt good about the race today, but it wasn’t quite enough to stay in the top ten.”
“The conditions were much better today,” he wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Virtually no wind and a little bit of fresh snow to make the tracks a little less icy. I felt good about both the skiing and shooting today. All in all, I’m happy with the first races and looking forward to the pursuit tomorrow.”
About 30 seconds behind Bailey, his teammate Tim Burke placed 29th (+1:28.0) after shooting one miss in the standing position (0+1).
In his first weekend on the World Cup circuit since the 2014/2015 season, the third starter Russell Currier placed 69th (+2:42.9) with three penalties (2+1), missing out on the top 60 qualification for the pursuit by about 20 seconds.
Biathlon Canada’s Brendan Green led his team in 32nd (+1:39.1), incurring one penalty in the prone shooting stage (1+0).
Scott Gow shot clean, but skied the 86th-ranked course time, putting him in 50th (+2:14.8). Similarly, Macx Davies also shot clean and skied a bit faster than Gow, but required more time on the range to land his shots, especially in the standing stage where he was the 99th-ranked athlete, ultimately finishing 52nd (0+0, +2:17.6).
Rounding out the results for Canada, Christian Gow finished 90th (0+2, +3:29.3) and Nathan Smith 96th (1+2, +4:12.2) with the 102nd course time, far below his usual ability.
The times back to the winner from Saturday’s sprint carry over into the pursuit race on Sunday.
“I think it will be big action tomorrow”, Germany’s Peiffer commented during the press conference. “After Martin there is a gap and then it’s really close.”
“Martin is from another planet, he is far ahead of us,” Lindström agreed. “But it looks like it will be a tough fight for place two and three.”
“That’s the worst thing you can do in biathlon”, Fourcade cautioned when asked about his lead going into the pursuit race. “When you think you have a two-bullet margin, on the next shoot[ing] you miss three. … I wonder if I can win three times in a row in Östersund. I never did it. So I await the answer tomorrow.”
“The nice thing is that the pursuit will be incredibly close at the top of the race tomorrow, and this means there will be a lot of ‘pack’ skiing, which I like,” said Bailey, who will start fewer than 10 seconds out of sixth. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s pursuit … should be a fun race.”
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.