“The soft the supple step and sturdy pace,
that in the smallest of all circles turns,
moves like a dance of strength around a core
in which a mighty will is standing stunned.”
– The Panther, second verse, by Rainer Maria Rilke. English translation by Stanley Appelbaum
At the turn of the 19th century, the Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rilke frequently visited the town of Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, on holidays with his family. Later he spent several years in Paris, France, where in 1902 he was inspired by his observation of a panther pacing through its cage in a menagerie.
These days, French biathlete Martin Fourcade is turning circles through the woods of Nove Mesto with all the elegance and strength of a panther, only he is in no way caged in, frequently leaving his opponents “standing stunned”.
On Sunday in the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup men’s 15-kilometer mass start, Fourcade only once struggled with his shooting accuracy in the second prone stage, having to ski a penalty lap and falling back half a minute to 14th place in the middle of the field of 30 starters. But in the end, his victory was once more not in doubt, while behind him an exciting sprint finish developed on the final loop with eight athletes vying for the remaining two positions on the podium.
Fourcade crossed the line in a time of 36:18.9 minutes with one penalty (0+1+0+0) to win the first mass start of the season, skiing at a slower pace only on the last loop, knowing he had a secure lead of almost 30 seconds after the final shooting.
“It was a really tense race,” Fourcade said during the press conference. “It was a really nervous [atmosphere] on the shooting range, and I think all the athletes felt it. So I really enjoyed it.”
Fourcade completed the hat trick of winning the sprint, pursuit and mass start in Nove Mesto, and it was his seventh win in eight individual races of the season.
“I had a wonderful beginning of the season so far,” Fourcade explained. “I just try to enjoy it … In the sprint my shape was good, but in the competitions yesterday and today I felt really, really good on the skis. I had extra power and could push a lot, and recovered really fast. Just wonderful days on the skis today and yesterday as well.”
On the last loop Germany’s Simon Schempp created a small gap to win the second-place battle between eight athletes (+8.3), and Russia’s Ivan Babikov secured the third position on the podium (+9.4). Schempp had two penalties in the prone stages (1+1+0+0), while Babikov had one in the final standing shooting (0+0+0+1).
“I did it the way I already had planned it yesterday,” Schempp, who had lost a photo finish for third place in Saturday’s pursuit, told German TV broadcaster ARD. “Today it worked great, today there was no icy patch in my way. I had a bit of strength left on the last loop, and that result is sensational.”
“This actually is the first season for me where I have been at three World Cups in a row,” Babikov commented on his good recent races and the finish sprint via a translator during the press conference. “I am very glad that I had enough strength to be with such high-profile athletes.”
They were helped somewhat by a fall of Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø on a left turn in a downhill. He had led the chase group until that point, but lost a pole and fell back to the back of that group, finishing ninth (+19.8).
“It’s really annoying since I felt really good, I feel like I had a good chance,” Bø told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “It’s unnecessary to fall, it’s all my fault, and it’s disappointing. I’ve been really close in many of the past races and then this happens. I’m determined to come back strong.”
“I managed to barely jump over his ski,” Schempp recounted the situation to ARD. “I narrowly avoided falling over him and crashing myself. There is just an icy patch on that downhill, and he hit it. It’s not easy to ski down there, especially on the final loop when the podium is on the line and everyone is already enormously tired.”
In front of a home crowd of more than 33,000 enthusiastic fans, Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic, who had broken his rifle stock in half in a crash during the pursuit a day before and thus had to start Sunday’s race with a spare rifle, finished fourth (+9.7), just behind Babikov.
“I missed one in the last standing, it was too much risk maybe,” Moravec, who shot two penalties (1+0+0+1), told the IBU in an interview. “It was 50/50 if I can beat Simon and Anton Babikov. But I am happy. I felt quite good during the last loop, but it was not enough for the first three. But still I am satisfied with the fourth place, [being in the] flower ceremony and the home crowd.”
Bailey in the Hunt for Most of Race
US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey was the lone North American starter qualified for the elite mass start, which is comprised of the 25 athletes leading the overall World Cup standings at that time (Bailey is currently ranked ninth), plus five athletes not among those with the best results of the competition week.
Bailey started his race day strong, remaining in the top 10 on the first loop and shooting clean in the first prone stage. He left the range in fourth place, just 6.2 seconds behind the Russia’s Anton Shipulin, who was leading the race at that time. On that loop, the leaders slowed the pace and the field bunched up again, with 20 athletes within ten seconds of one another.
In the second prone stage, Bailey missed one, leaving the penalty lap in 15th and 23.1 seconds back, just one place behind Fourcade, who had also incurred a penalty in that stage.
Bailey was unable to ski with Fourcade, but held a position near the top 20 and managed to shoot clean in the first standing stage while a number of his nearest competitors missed. The American returned to the course in ninth position and only 22 seconds out of first.
While losing a few more seconds to a hard-charging Fourcade, who decided the race on that next loop, Bailey moved up to eighth place entering the final shooting, but then had two more misses and had to ski twice through the penalty lap again, which cost him almost a minute to the top of the field.
He ended his race in 21st, 1:17.1 minutes back, with three penalties (0+1+0+2). In the two other races in Nove Mesto, Bailey placed 20th in the sprint and ninth in the pursuit, his best result in an individual race since the 2013/14 season.
“Today was a solid race until the end,” Bailey commented in a US Biathlon press release. “Sometimes things just don’t go your way and today was one of those days. Still satisfied with the start of the season and looking forward to some down time at home.”
The IBU World Cup takes a two-week break for the holidays, before returning on Jan. 5 with a men’s sprint in Oberhof, Germany.
“I am a bit sad about this [upcoming break] because I want this to never stop,” a smiling Fourcade told reporters during the press conference. “And now it will be two weeks of Christmas time, I will eat a lot of chocolates and I will be back in a poor shape! So we will see. But I am also happy to be back home. I will see my daughter tomorrow, and it has been a long time since I saw her. So, yeah, it will be cool.”
The panther is resting.
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.