LE GRAND-BORNAND, France—Martin Fourcade was winless so far this season, a strange situation. On Saturday he joked that his current foe, Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway, was just too good and couldn’t be beaten.
But in the last race of the French World Cup weekend, the men’s 15 k mass start, Fourcade managed to do it, thrilling the 16,000-strong home crowd in the process. The formula was simple: shoot clean.
Fourcade did, Bø didn’t, and the Frenchman came away with is first win of the season.
“It’s difficult to speak of it,” Fourcade said. “What I can say is that in terms of emotions, it’s probably the most amazing competition in my life. It was something really incredible to be supported by all the fans.”
Fourcade shoots slowly in prone, and so it wasn’t until the third loop that he came to the front, passed rivals Erik Lesser of Germany and Anton Shipulin of Russia, and then just kept going.
“It was very tough against these guys,” Lesser said in a post-race press conference. “Martin was always aggressive on the track. He was never happy with my pace, especially on the third loop.”
Coming into the fourth shooting, Fourcade had built a lead of more than ten seconds. That allowed him to take one of the slowest shooting times in the whole field to clean his last five targets.
Lesser and Shipulin also both cleaned to go 20-for-20, and left the range eight seconds behind. And Bø – who had missed two shots in the very first stage and clawed his way back – also cleaned, and fast, and headed out in fourth, 15 seconds back.
Fourcade’s win was secure. He kept attacking anyway, never allowing the chasers to come close. That gave him time to pick up a French flag and saunter his way down the finishing stretch.
“I could enjoy it a bit, but I was still under pressure and I had to keep a good level of speed,” he said. “But it was something really special because it was a mix of emotion. It was not only hunger or happiness or satisfaction. It was all of that. It was probably the craziest race of my life and I will remember it for a long time.”
Behind him, Bø was charging and passed first Shipulin and then Lesser. The German tried to follow, but couldn’t quite hold on to Bø’s tails. Bø crossed the line in second, 3.9 seconds behind the loitering Fourcade, and Lesser was third, +6.2.
“I knew that Shipulin wasn’t in great shape today,” Lesser told German broadcaster ZDF. “I just didn’t quite know where to attack him. Then going past Andi [assistant coach] I thought about passing by Johannes just to fake it, but I noticed that my legs were flooded already after I have done every race this season so far. I am mega-happy about the third place, with a clean shooting. Yesterday I pitied myself after my bad shooting, now I proved to myself that I can do it.”
“I was quite a little bit stressed out on the first shooting so I missed two targets,” Bø said. “From there it was really painful because I had to ski really fast to make up for those mistakes. To finish in second place is a little more than I was hoping for after the first shooting.”
Shipulin hung on for fourth (+25.1), outsprinting Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger (fifth, +25.8).
Four North Americans qualified for the in the 30-man mass start, but American Tim Burke did not race because he was sick. His teammates Lowell Bailey and Sean Doherty did most of the race within a few seconds of each other, finishing 23rd (+2:22.4) and 24th (+2:52.5) with three and four penalties, respectively.
“The first lap was a bit of a cluster,” Doherty said. “It just gets such an accordion with that bridge right after the start, and a couple of other spots. This course, you know, it’s fun, but it needs a little bit of realignment for the bigger races. Everyone knows what they’re doing though, so you don’t have to worry much that some guy will crash and take out 30 people or something like that.”
With a few penalties apiece, the Americans couldn’t hope for top finishes.
“It was a solid race, but in this field you need an exceptional race to do well,” Bailey said. “It’s funny, I had this thought maybe in the third or fourth loop. I’m working so hard, and it’s like, in this field, it’s the top 30 guys in the world and you can have what on any other day would be like a decent race, but you’re, you know, 23rd or 24th. It wasn’t a bad race.”
It was Doherty’s first mass start.
“It was a fun experience,” he said. “Getting in there and mixing it up with the top 30 guys in the world–it’s a treat, it’s fun. And next time, I hope just to be fresher and be ready to get in there and throw some elbows and just hit a few more shots. The other guys, they’re right there, it’s not like I’m way off.”
For Canada, Scott Gow competed in his second-ever mass start, finishing 26th (+4:05.4) with five missed shots.
“I didn’t shoot well today,” Gow said. “Five misses was, like, five way too many, so — a little disappointed, shooting-wise, especially because it’s perfect shooting conditions. There’s no real good excuse for it. Skiing I was kind of tired…. I will just work on shooting and work on my the confidence in the range, because it’s there sometimes, but it’s not there other times. I need to get a little more consistent.”
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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.