HOCHFILZEN, Austria—On a day when the wind seemed like only a flutter, it could still throw the World Championships biathlon field into disarray.
Take Martin Fourcade, the best biathlete in the world this year. He missed two shots out of ten: one in prone, and one in standing.
“When I crossed the finish line, I expected to be top ten,” the Frenchman said in a press conference. “Then when I saw the race I expected for top five.”
He ended up third – a pleasant surprise.
Ten men shot clean, and four of them landed in the top six. Benedikt Doll of Germany claimed his first top-level win – at World Championships, no less, and by just 0.7 seconds over Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø. Both shot clean and were late starters; the race came down to whether or not Bø could keep a 9.3-second lead over Doll on the final 3.3 kilometers. He couldn’t.
“It’s not so fun to go out of standing as the leader and lose seconds and be number two at the finish,” Bø said. “Especially when it’s that close… I did a quite good race and I was really fighting on the last loop. The last two kilometers I was really fighting deep. My head wanted to win today, but my legs couldn’t follow the head. That’s why I was in second place.”
Doll, meanwhile, had seen Fourcade (bib 4) finish before he even started. Knowing that he had two penalties in hand, Doll saw his chance.
“I know that if I can make a perfect race, I can win,” he said. “The whole season I had always problems with my shooting. So I had really good feeling at the zeroing, especially standing shooting, I felt really sure… After the fourth shot in standing, there comes something in my mind that says, if you make a clean shooting you maybe will get to be World Champion. I hit the last target. I think that was one of the best moments today.”
Fourth place went to a clean-shooting Lowell Bailey of the United States, who had focused on process over results, and along the way snagged the second-best finish ever by a U.S. biathlete at the Championships.
“This year I have really tried to step back from worrying about where I end up on the result list and focus on the quality of what I’m doing, both in shooting and skiing,” he said. “Today I went out and really tried to execute the technique that I wanted to execute. And also on the range, to do what I have been training on the range all year to do. Some days it doesn’t work, and today it worked.”
The top finish for the home team went to Julian Eberhard, who placed seventh (+35.5) despite two penalties.
Three in the Points for Canada
Much like Fourcade, Canada’s top finisher Scott Gow had two penalties and was relieved that much of the rest of the field struggled as well. He landed 25th, +1:22.4, for the second-best World Championships finish of his career.
“I was definitely disappointed,” Gow said of the missed shots. “But I knew that if I wanted to be in the pursuit or have a good result I had to go extra hard. So that was my motivation… It’s a solid result, to be honest. I’m really lucky that everyone else also missed today. Martin is winning [right now] with two misses. So I’m in the same ballpark as the top part of the field, which is good. Because otherwise I’d probably be close to the [top-60 pursuit qualification] bubble.”
Gow attributed the misses to nerves, saying it was “all me” and not the tricky wind.
“I was just too much inside my own head for the first shot — I just pulled it,” he explained. “Then the rest of the five were fine. Then I had the opposite in standing, where the first four were great, and I just tensed up and missed the last one… My sprint racing has been quite strong, especially in the first trimester where I cleaned every sprint. I was trying not to think about that and just do what I did in those races, but at an event like this the pressure is extra high.”
His brother, Christian Gow, did clean all ten targets and landed 32nd (+1:30.6).
“I shot clean, obviously a big advantage,” the younger Gow said. “It looks like the field isn’t shooting so well, so that’s important. Skiing wasn’t exactly where I’d like it to be. I felt like I pushed really hard and left it all out there, but I’m not sure why.”
All in all, he said, he was satisfied with the race: “I just went out and did what I could, and I’m happy to be here and happy to have done that.”
Team veteran Brendan Green will join the brothers in the pursuit after finishing 38th (+1:36.4) with one penalty. Green was disappointed with his skiing as well.
“The skiing, it just hasn’t been there this season,” he said. “I tried my best. I gave it my all. But for sure I was hoping for more.”
Macx Davies, who finished 79th (+2:53.4) with two penalties, agreed: “It has been hard finding my legs this season.”
For the Canadian team, it will be back to the drawing board to try to regain speed before next season’s Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“It’s hard,” Green admitted. “I have been trying to take it trimester by trimester. At this point of the season I’m just trying to ride out the season and do the best that I can. Once we’re back home, we are definitely going to sit down and evaluate and see where things might have gone wrong.”
U.S. Team Solid Behind Bailey’s Fourth Place
While Bailey’s flower-ceremony appearance highlighted the U.S. results, all four starters made the top 40. That’s easily under the top-60 cutoff to appear in Sunday’s pursuit.
Leif Nordgren placed 26th (+1:24.3) with one missed shot. After injuring his toe in an accident in November and missing almost the entire first period of World Cup racing, as well as part of the second, Nordgren said the result was just fine.
“The one miss I had was a really bad one, so I’m kind of pissed about that,” he said. “I tried to take my time and make sure that all the shots were quality. Nine of them were, one of them was not. [On skis] I actually felt good. It has been kind of an interesting year for me with the whole toe thing, so I don’t have that many races yet… I’m not unhappy with where I am right now. What happened happened and I can’t really change it now. I can just do my best.”
Sean Doherty had also missed more than half the World Cup season to date, thanks to mononucleosis. He missed two shots in prone and finished 39th (+1:37.7).
Right behind him was Tim Burke, who missed two shots in standing to finish 40th (+1:38.6).
“I just got out of rhythm trying to get that second shot,” he said.
Like some of the Canadians, Burke has been working to find his ski speed. It didn’t show up today, at least not the way he wanted it to.
“I have no idea,” he admitted about his skiing. “I’ve been feeling good training, I’ve just felt really flat so far racing this, pretty much this entire year. I don’t know what’s going on… I had to take a break after the first few days of the [pre-Championships] training camp because I felt so bad. Not sick, I felt totally healthy, just really really flat. So I really only had about a week preparation. I was hopeful – I had a few sessions where I felt like, oh, maybe it’s coming back. But I haven’t felt that yet in a race.”
For seven of the eight North Americans, though the pursuit will be a chance to see if head-to-head racing can bring the fire. 15th and 55th place in the sprint were separated by one minute; the opportunity to move up in the field is huge.
And if anything was proven in the sprint, it’s that shooting well could mean a lot.
“Even on a day like today where it seems like it’s pretty calm, the shooting is really challenging,” Burke said. “Especially in prone. So I’m hopeful that I can get something going tomorrow. Just being around other people, being able to ski with other fast guys — maybe that can help me find the rhythm a little better.”
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.