Even Martin Fourcade himself seems surprised with his season so far in the record books.
“I know what I did this season is incredible,” the French biathlon star said in Sunday’s press conference in Ruhpolding, Germany. “Even in my best dreams I could never imagine that.”
Fourcade continued his series of stellar performances in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany. But he cut it close this time on his way to his 10th victory of the season.
In heavy snowfall on the course in the Bavarian Alps, Norway’s clean-shooting Emil Hegle Svendsen took the lead for a short time when Fourcade missed two targets in his second prone stage and added another penalty in the first standing stage, returning to the course 0.5 seconds behind the Norwegian.
But after initially letting Svendsen set the pace on the loop before the final shooting, Fourcade pushed the tempo up the “Wall of Ruhpolding” climb to create a small gap on a group of five others still fighting for the podium within ten seconds of each other. He managed to reach the range first, and had already hit his first targets before his opponents set up in their lanes. Fourcade took his time with his last shot before finally hitting that one, too. While Svendsen also avoided the penalty lap, he left the range 14.3 seconds behind Fourcade.
On the last loop the two athletes were satisfied to just defend their positions, with Fourcade crossing the line in 33:47.5 minutes, with three penalties (0+2+1+0), and Svendsen 18.3 seconds back with no penalties.
“On the fourth and the last lap I was really, really tired,” Svendsen said at the press conference. “And [with] the slow conditions, when you feel tired it gets even worse, you know. The snow was coming down, and it was a tough battle with my own inner demons and my legs … To be second with this kind of fatigue at the end of the race, I am happy I came to the finish before the other guys.”
Just behind Svendsen, the third place on the podium was decided in a three-way race between Russia’s Anton Shipulin, Czech Republic’s Michal Krcmar and Germany’s Arnd Peiffer. At first it looked like Shipulin would prevail when he built a small gap on the last loop, but in the finishing stretch, Krcmar pushed up to him and outsprinted the Russian to achieve his first-career World Cup podium in third (+19.5 with no penalties), moving up all the way from starting in 29th. His previous best results had been two fifth places last season, one of those also in Ruhpolding in a mass start.
“First time for me and a little bit nervous,” Krcmar said with a laugh in his opening remark at the press conference. “On the last shooting I was clean, and on the track I concentrated on the fight with Arnd Peiffer. But on the last downhill, I see Anton so close and I try it and done. A very amazing day for me, I am so happy. ”
Shipulin finished in fourth (+21.3 with one penalty) and Peiffer in fifth (+24.1 with one penalty).
A knowledgeable student of the history of biathlon, who frequently cites certain races or career achievements of his youth idols (including his countryman Raphaël Poirée), Fourcade acknowledged that he is keenly aware he already tied the best World Cup season of his career, and is motivated by the chance he may soon break Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen’s record of 12 wins in one season.
“I know I already won so much this season,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “There is a big gap [already] in the overall rankings. So if I had not these kinds of statistics, I don’t like the word record, but if I were not fighting for these statistics, I will not stay as focused as I am now and have less victories.”
Peiffer’s race got off to a bad start when, on the first loop, he tangled and crashed with his teammate Simon Schempp. Peiffer broke a pole, but both fell flat on their bellies and at least their rifles remained undamaged.
“I can’t really explain what happened yet,” Peiffer told German broadcaster ARD after the race. “Simon was behind me on the downhill. And I believe the root cause was that my ski bumped to the side. In that moment Simon pushed into me, and then it all went so fast that I got an imbalance. Then I lay there, and oh, this was so annoying. I stood up, my pole was broken in three pieces. Simon had crashed with me, and a whole group skied past us. Then it took a while for me to get a spare. I may have to talk to our support staff about that because they stood there like stuffed dummies while I was yelling. Then I got a pole with a strap that was like glove size 5 [i.e. much too small]. Then I had to collect myself for the shooting range, and at least that worked kind of well.”
Schempp ended his race in seventh (+39.7) with two penalties (0+0+0+2).
Americans Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey skied close together throughout the race, initially moving up several positions with two clean prone shooting performances after starting 12th and 18th, respectively. Burke left the range in 11th and Bailey in 13th place, both just a few seconds out of the top 10. But in the first standing shooting, Burke fell back to 28th with two penalties, and added another penalty in the final stage to finish 24th (+1:31.6).
“Today was another solid race for me,” Burke said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “I felt solid on the course but have not quite found my timing on the shooting range. I feel like things are headed in the right direction for me and I am looking forward to competing in Antholz next week, which has always been one of my favorite courses.”
With a penalty in each of the standing stages (0+0+1+1), Bailey finished 26th (+1:33.8), two seconds behind Burke.
“I struggled a bit on the skis today,” Bailey told US Biathlon. “No explanation, but I’m still happy with a solid top-30 going into Antholz. It was difficult conditions with falling snow, so I was satisfied with the shooting. Of course, I wish I could have those two misses back, but I’ll have to wait until Antholz.”
In his second World Cup week of the season, their teammate Sean Doherty finished 43rd (+3:22.1) with four penalties (1+0+2+1) after starting out in 40th position.
For Biathlon Canada, only Scott Gow qualified for the pursuit with his sprint result. He started 42nd and finished just ahead of Doherty in 41st place (+3:09.3) with three penalties (0+1+1+1).
“It wasn’t a huge move up today, but I still managed to gain one spot at the finish,” Gow wrote on Facebook. “Tricky conditions and heavy snow made for a challenging race! Lots of fun and looking forward to Italy.”
The IBU World Cup continues next week in Antholz with the women’s 15 k individual on Thursday, Jan. 19, and the men’s 20 k individual on Friday, Jan. 20.
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.