If you were to ask France’s Martin Fourcade what’s wrong with a second and third place, and even two fourth place finishes in the first four races of the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup season, he’d likely politely tell you nothing — it just wasn’t up to his usual standards.
“Despite my two podiums here, I felt that if I had not won here, it would have been my worst season opener since, for seven years in a row, I won here,” the 29-year-old defending World Cup champion told the IBU after Sunday’s pursuit in Östersund, Sweden. “Now I can be very calm and relaxed for the next competitions.”
He got down to business out of the start of the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit, starting second, just 1 second behind Norway’s Tarjei Bø, who won the sprint to start the pursuit first. Early in the first of five 2.5 k loops, Fourcade set the pace with Bø and Germany’s Erik Lesser in bib 3 slotting in behind him. Fourcade entered the range first to take Lane 1 for the first prone stage, where he and Bø both missed a shot to slip to fifth and sixth, respectively, after each skiing a penalty lap. Meanwhile, Lesser missed four to drop out of the top 30 and nearly a minute and 20 seconds out of first.
While Fourcade left the range 10 seconds behind Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, who had moved into first with clean shooting, he was back into first 2.5 k later. On the second prone, Fourcade and Bø both cleaned to leave the range just 3.8 seconds apart in first and second, respectively. Svendsen missed one to slip 18 seconds back to third.
On Loop 3, Fourcade switched into high gear. Bø kept pace, but by the time they lined up together for the first standing stage, Fourcade had the edge. The Frenchmen once again cleaned while Bø missed three to fall to 18th and nearly a minute and a half out of contention by the time he finished his penalty laps.
Game over. Fourcade spent the next two loops and final shooting going through the motions to secure his victory, cleaning the last standing stage with the 25th-fastest shooting time, then slowly turning to look up at the crowd. He appeared relaxed with his two closest challengers, his French teammate Quentin Fillon Maillet and Slovenia’s Jakov Fak, who started 2 seconds apart in 12th and 10th, respectively, and shot identically (1+0+0+1), skiing together more than a minute back in second and third.
Fourcade’s final loop time ranked 51st out of 58 yet he still finished first, 40.8 seconds clear of Fak, who dropped Maillet on the final climbs before the stadium. Fourcade claimed his first win of the season in 30:12.2, Fak placed second for his first podium since 2015, and Fillon Maillet took third (+42.1).
“I must say that I was very surprised because after the third shooting it was more a fight against myself,” Fourcade said. “I am very satisfied about the biathlon I showed.”
“I think Quentin and I worked well together, half the loop each pushing to keep on the podium,” Fak told the IBU. “Both can be very satisfied about finishing on the podium and leaving Sweden with this result.”
On a day with variable wind conditions and soft, slow snow, no one in the men’s race shot clean. Six hit 19 of 20 targets, including Fourcade and his brother Simon Fourcade (ninth place) and Norway’s Lars Helge Birkeland (sixth place) in the top 10.
Biathlon Canada’s Christian Gow also finished with a single penalty (0+0+1+0) in 21st for his best World Cup result. Gow had started the pursuit 26th and 58 seconds back, and picked off five places to finish 2:04.6 behind Fourcade.
“[Saturday] was my best sprint placing ever, so I knew I was in a good position for the pursuit,” Gow wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I knew a top 20 was possible, and maybe more if my skiing was on form. Unfortunately, I had some shin issues skiing today so I wasn’t able to ski as well as I would have liked. But I did my job on the range and am happy with how the race turned out.”
The shin pain he referred to wasn’t anything serious, “just bothered me today for some reason,” he elaborated. “I’m not too concerned though, I’m sure they’ll be fine in a couple days.”
His shooting time ranked 22nd overall compared to his overall course time in 49th.
“The shooting conditions were challenging today, but I knew that I could still shoot well if I stayed focused in the range,” Gow wrote. “I shot confidently today and I think that helped a lot.”
He consistently left the range within striking distance of the top 20: first in 22nd, then in 21st, then 26th, and finally 20th.
“The course was pretty soft today. That added an extra challenge skiing,” he continued. “I made up all of my time in the range today, but am quite happy with my last loop. I am proud of how hard I was able to push myself on that lap to keep my placing.”
Leaving Östersund, where he and his older brother Scott Gow and another teammate Julia Ransom all achieved career bests to start their season, Gow said the team mood was positive.
“Almost everyone had at least one result that they can be proud of and we really performed well as a team which boosts everyone’s confidence I think,” he wrote.
Four Canadians qualified for the men’s pursuit, with Nathan Smith finishing 42nd (+3:19.2) after starting 24th and missing three shots (1+0+0+2). Scott Gow placed 50th (+4:10.9) after starting 16th and incurring six penalties (1+2+1+2), and Brendan Green followed in 51st (+4:18.6) with five penalties (0+2+2+1).
Bailey Gets First Top 20 of Season
Lowell Bailey led two Americans in the pursuit, starting 22nd and 50 seconds back and rising to 17th (+1:40.2) with two penalties (0+1+0+1). After cleaning the first prone stage, where several of the top competitors incurred penalties, Bailey moved up to 12th and 39 seconds out of first.
One loop later, he found himself nearly a minute back in 19th after a penalty on his second prone. Bailey worked his way back to 11th after cleaning his third stage, but slipped to 15th with a miss in the final standing stage.
“The range was tricky today. The wind was very shifty and constantly changing,” Bailey explained in an email. “I only tried to focus on the fundamental parts of my shooting (e.g. trigger squeeze, breathing, etc.) and make sure that I was taking good shots. My groups did move around from one prone to the next, but fortunately, most of the shots stayed in the hit zone.
“I’m happy with the shooting today,” he continued. “I tried to execute the type of shooting that I’ve worked on all summer. Although I was happy with the shooting result in the Sprint, I know that I could have shot faster. It’s a delicate balance; when to go for speed and when to hold back for accuracy.”
His shooting time in the pursuit ranked third overall, while his course time was 42nd.
“I definitely don’t feel in my best shape yet,” he wrote. “We deliberately approached the season conservatively, with the mindset that the Olympics are months away and I want to be in my best shape when I hit the tracks in Pyeongchang.”
Leaving Östersund, where he finished 22nd in the sprint and 67th in the 20 k individual, Bailey wrote that he was satisfied with his first week of racing considering that he came down with a cold a week earlier.
“All things considered, I feel very fortunate to have come away with some WC points in a field which seems to be one of the strongest international biathlon fields yet,” he wrote.
Also for US Biathlon, Tim Burke finishing 48th (+3:52.7) after starting 52nd and missing four shots (2+0+1+1).
With the conclusion of the first IBU World Cup in Östersund, the circuit moves to Hochfilzen, Austria, where racing kicks off again Friday, Dec. 8, with men’s and women’s sprints.
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.