LE GRAND-BORNAND, France– Johannes Thingnes Bø had won three straight races coming into today’s 12.5 k pursuit.
But if anyone was going to knock him off his pedestal, it seemed likely to be the home team. Behind Bø, Martin Fourcade started second, Antoine Guigonnat third, and Simon Destheiux fifth. When each of them sprinted out of the race start, the 15,000 spectators went wild, enveloping this mountain venue in a wall of noise.
But never mind the noise, Bø was focused. He cruised around the course, and shot 20-for-20 – including with some of the fastest shooting time in the field in standing. He had such a lead on his last loop that as his coach ran along beside him up a hill, he slowed down and gave the guy a fist-bump.
The last one to win four races in a row was Fourcade, who finished second today, with two penalties and one minute and one second back.
“I am quite satisfied about my performance, despite my slow prone and two mistakes on the standing,” he said in a post-race press conference. “But also of course I am struggling to catch the win, because this man to my left is simply too good now.”
For Bø’s part, he can’t put his improving performance down to any one factor. He has had many bouts of brilliance in the past, including sweeping the World Cup weekend the last time it was held here, in 2013.
“I’m really surprised about my own shape and that I now have my fourth win in a row,” he said. “It’s very untypical me. When I do a good race, I often do a bad race after… This sport is like, the more you train and the more races you have, the better you will be. I am one year older than last year. And I think this is a good thing. You get older you get more experience, and you can use that.”
Not only could the French team not put Fourcade – Olympic gold medalist, World Champion, several time World Cup overall champion, the most reliable prediction to win at any time in the last few years – on the top step of the podium, but the teammate behind him also faltered.
Guigonnat, who was called up to the World Cup after starting the season at a lower level and had immediately scored his first ever podium in Thursday’s sprint, missed three shots and finished 12th (+2:06.9). Desthieux missed two shots, crucially one coming in the last bout, and finished sixth (+1:41.9).
Instead it was two Russians sprinting for the podium. Anton Shipulin edged past younger teammate Alexander Loginov to take third place by just two tenths of a second.
“Alexander was really going really well today,” Shipulin, through a translator, said of his teammate. “He was battling really hard and I’m really proud of him. But I’m also very happy for myself that I am part of the podium today.”
When asked by a French journalist about the recent IOC decision that Russian athletes must compete under the Olympic flag at the upcoming Games in PyeongChang due to doping violations, Shipulin said, “let’s not talk about the past.”
Bailey Cleans All 20, Moving Up to 14th
Like Bø, American Lowell Bailey had some happy memories of the last time the World Cup visited the French Alps.
“I cleaned the pursuit the last time I was here,” he explained. “My coach said that to me. He said, you like this course, last time this was your first clean pursuit.”
Bailey doubled down on that effort. After a sprint that hadn’t been perfect, he shot 20-for-20 in the pursuit, moving up to 10th after the last shooting bout before slipping a few places on the last loop to finish 14th (+2:13.9).
“I am really happy with the result today,” he said. “It was painful out there on the course, but we had great skis and we had enthusiastic staff and my family is here too, which is awesome.”
Bailey was sick earlier in the season, and feels like it is still limiting his ski speed. And while he had an incredible run at World Championships last year and one of the best shooting percentages of any male athlete on the World Cup all season, this year his shooting hasn’t been on sharp.
“My shooting hasn’t been bad this year, but I also haven’t had a race where I felt that everything clicked,” he said. “For today I really just wanted to have a good solid shooting race I just haven’t put it together in the races — especially in the sprints. And if you don’t put it together in the sprints, then obviously it doesn’t help you in the pursuits. So yeah, I was happy. I didn’t quite have [the speed] in the last few loops, but… I was really happy to hold it together.”
On his way up through the field he passed a few teammates, including Tim Burke. Burke had finished tenth in the sprint, but was undone by three missed shots scattered across his different shooting bouts. He ended up 26th (+3:03.1).
Sean Doherty had started 18th and like Burke, missed three shots – one in each stage after a clean first bout.
“The shooting overall, looking at everyone else’s, three penalties isn’t terrible,” he said. “It’s just the timing. To miss that one in my last stage really cost me big. The other two misses weren’t as consequential. It’s a little unfortunate because I felt like I was taking pretty good shots. It’s a high pace out there. It’s not like the sprint where you can get in your own rhythm. You have got to ski, you have to hold on to other guys around you. That can make things tougher on the range.”
Also for the U.S., Leif Nordgren started 56th and moved up to 48th (+4:54.9) with three penalties.
Gows Top-30 Again for Canada
For Biathlon Canada, two men had turned in excellent sprint performances: Scott Gow had been a career-best 16th, and his brother Christian’s 30th place was also one of the top few results of his senior career.
Both had reasons to be cautious about their prospects in the pursuit.
“I got sick on the day of the relay [last weekend],” Christian Gow explained. “I woke up not feeling great and it got worse as the week went on. I’ve been getting better the last couple of days but honestly, I was debating whether or not to race the sprint. And then I decided, well, we have a lot of break after this to recover. So I figured I’d go for it but I had no expectations really… I had no expectations for this whole weekend.”
The younger Gow had just one penalty and moved up one spot to 29th (+3:06.6) for a second-straight top-30 finish.
“I think that, honestly, maybe what helped me was going into this with an open mind, not expecting anything, and not feeling pressure to do really well,” he said. “Just thinking, it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Of course, I knew that if I wanted to do anything I would have to shoot really well this weekend. But I’m very confident in my shooting. It has been really good this year. I knew I could put that together. But it felt like good pressure, a positive pressure.”
Scott Gow has struggled in pursuits in the past, often undone by poor shooting after good sprint results put him in a good position. Today, he missed four shots and finished 27th (+3:04.1).
“This wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I’m not super happy with it but I’m not upset either. It’s a small step towards finally improving my pursuit racing. Normally I drop 20 or 30 spots.”
Coming into the final bout, he was in the top 20. That’s what he began to think about, before missing two shots there.
“I am disappointed with my last shooting,” he said. “It felt quite good, but I think I was just a little too nervous. Just knowing where I was in the race. I was coming in at the tail end of a group of guys, so I knew a clean shooting would go a long way. Obviously I’m not supposed to think that, but it’s hard not to sometimes.”
He left the range in 29th, but was able to pick up two spots by the finish (one of them his brother, who had left the range in 22nd). Scott Gow had the 24th-best ski time of the day.
“My skiing felt quite good today,” he said. “It kept me in the mix.”
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.