One day after winning the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup men’s sprint, Johannes Thingnes Bø held onto first place in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Saturday in Hochfilzen, Austria. In difficult conditions with heavy snowfall and strong gusts of wind, the Norwegian decided the race when he shot clean in the final standing stage. He reached the finish line uncontested on the last loop in a time of 36:41.1 minutes, almost a minute ahead of Slovenia’s Jakov Fak (+58.8 with one penalty) and last season’s Overall World Cup winner Martin Fourcade (+1:10.0 minutes with five penalties).
“Best start of the season so far in my career,” the 24-year-old Bø said after his third victory of the season in a post-race press conference. “I have to enjoy it, you never know what the next races will bring.”
2:12.8 minutes behind him, US Biathlon’s Sean Doherty finished 17th for his best career result in a World Cup pursuit, improving by on an 18th place from a pursuit last season in Kontiolahti, Finland.
A day after scoring his first points of the new World Cup season in 22nd and shooting a perfect 10-for-10 in Friday’s 10-kilometer sprint, Doherty shot 18-for-20 in the pursuit (1+0+1+0).
“I am very happy with the race today,” Doherty wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “The execution on the range was good in the tough conditions we had today. It’s nice to have a solid back-to-back set of races here. … The ski shape is still a ways off but it’s heading in the right direction.”
In very difficult conditions in the first standing stage, several of the top racers like Norway’s Henrik L’Abee-Lund and Germany’s Arnd Peiffer incurred multiple penalties and to slip out of contention. Meanwhile, Doherty hit all but one of his targets in that stage and moved up to 16th. On the next loop he maintained that position about 1:50 back.
“The course was slow today, although not too soft,” Doherty commented on the conditions. “Fortunately it was not as snowy and windy as yesterday afternoon. There was a steady wind but it was manageable. I am pleased with my work on the range. If you want to compete at this level you have to shoot well.”
After the race up front had been decided in a final duel between Bø and Fourcade in the last stage, Doherty once again shot clean in the last standing stage and moved up to 11th. On the final loop, he could not quite hold that position and a small group passed him, yet coming onto the finishing stretch he was able to keep Ukraine’s Dmytro Pidruchnyi 0.4 seconds behind him in a push for 17th (+2:12.8).
“Unfortunately I didn’t quite have the legs to back up the solid shooting, as was clear on the last lap,” Doherty wrote. “Looking over my shoulder I saw that big pack of guys and I just tried to give it all I had. I wasn’t able to hang on but I was glad to be in that situation nonetheless.”
Starting out in 19th place based on his sprint result, Biathlon Canada’s Nathan Smith finished the day in 31st, 3:02.2 after Bø with three penalties (1+1+0+1).
After the first shooting stage, Smith had moved into 14th despite incurring a penalty.
“The wind was a bit changeable, especially in the first prone where it was blowing quite strongly,” he explained in an email after the race.
Smith skied the next lap in a group that included Germany’s Simon Schempp, who eventually would finish the race in podium contention, and got into a slight tangle with Schempp in a right-hand turn at the far point of the course, but both remained on their feet.
“I started pretty aggressive on the first lap but wasn’t able to maintain the speed of those around me after that,” Smith wrote. “I didn’t see who was tangling with me on that turn, but it was definitely an odd place to attempt an inside pass. I can’t say yet that things are turning around in the skiing department. I think I will just have to be very very patient.”
In the second prone stage, Smith incurred another penalty and dropped to 29th place, almost two minutes behind the leaders. He cleaned the first standing stage that followed, then had one more miss in the fourth and final stage.
“My shooting was pretty good once again today, given the challenging conditions,” Smith wrote. “It was definitely tougher conditions today, although the temperature was low enough that the falling snow wasn’t sticking to my glasses. The tracks were a little soft, and quite slow, especially out of the track where athletes were skiing.”
He started the final loop in 27th position and “like the previous ones, I was mostly focused on trying to minimize the number of skiers passing me,” Smith wrote. “It’s fun to pass but when you’re not feeling it its important to try and conserve energy.”
On the final meters of the race, he went head to head with Italy’s Thomas Bormolini and finished 0.4 seconds behind him for 31st.
“I thought I could take Bormolini but he got the middle track,” Smith recalled. “I tried my best in the outside and made a little ground, but the snow was just too deep over there. Tactically it would’ve been best to be in front heading through the tunnels [that are leading into the stadium].”
Smith’s teammate Brendan Green finished 33rd (+3:15.7), also with three penalties ( 1+0+1+1), after climbing nearly 20 places from his starting position by using his extensive experience to deal with snowy conditions that he described as “a classic Hochfilzen day”.
“Today was a much better race for me,” Green wrote in an email. “Yesterday felt completely off for some reason, so to be able to put together a solid performance today is reassuring. … I’m quite happy with the shooting considering the conditions. I was really hoping to shoot clean in the last bout, which would have made for a really great day, but all in all I’m happy with how I performed.”
After incurring that third penalty in the last standing stage, Green, who started 52nd, came back on the course in 37th place. He recalled seeing a group ahead of him, which he was able to catch by skiing the 17th-fastest course time on the final loop.
“I attacked early on and skied my way past a train of 5 athletes, and was able to hold them off for the rest of the loop with the exception of [Belgium’s] Michael Roesch. This was my strongest ski of the season which is hopefully a sign that my shape is coming around. It seems that no matter what I do, I struggle to find my form early on in the season.”
Doherty’s teammate, Lowell Bailey, the only other American who qualified for the pursuit, moved up from 53rd to finish 36th (+3:20.6) with three penalties (0+2+1+0).
The two remaining Canadian starters, Scott Gow and Christian Gow, finished 48th (+5:08.4) and 49th (+ 5:13.7), respectively, with Scott ending up with seven penalties (1+1+3+2), while his younger brother Christian had five penalties (2+0+1+2) and improved five places from the sprint.
Bø and Fourcade in Sync… Until Final Shooting
The two dominant athletes of the IBU World Cup season so far swapped the lead out on course and dueled on the range in Saturday’s pursuit. In the end the podium was nearly a repeat of Friday’s sprint, with Bø in first, and Fak and Fourcade flipping positions in second and third, respectively.
In the first shooting bout, Bø incurred two penalties to lose his 12-second head start on Fourcade, but he set out on his second loop just a second behind Fourcade. In the second prone stage, the two both shot clean, after shooting alongside each other and almost hitting their targets in a synchronous rhythm, before starting the third loop together.
While not quite able to hold up with Fourcade and Bø on the course with the 35th-ranked overall course time, Fak, who had started the day in third, was able to keep in touch with the leaders due to another solid shooting performance.
The 30-year-old, Croatian-born Fak, who has been racing for Slovenia since the beginning of the 2010/2011 season, is coming back from a slight slump last season, but is looking back on a storied career that includes a third place in the 2014/2015 World Cup Total Score and two gold medals at the 2012 and 2015 IBU World Championships.
By his own account, in preparation for the new season Fak mostly trained with the Ukrainian women’s team, which is coached by one of his old mentors. “They shoot good and I wanted to beat them and I guess that also works in the men’s field,” he said with laugh at the press conference.
In the first standing stage, Bø and Fourcade each incurred a penalty, and while Fourcade shot his sequence slightly faster, Bø was able to easily make up a six-second gap on the next loop, taking the lead again up the first big climb.
“[I] had a perfect race together with Johannes,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “We each did half the [work] in the front and it was a smart move because we wanted to keep the advantage and we knew the answer would be on the final shooting.”
Fak also had his only miss of the day in the third stage, but managed to improve his position as conditions worsened and a number of athletes had several penalties in this stage. Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov and Germany’s Schempp were the first ones to clean this stage to leap into podium contention. Bø’s older brother Tarjei also cleaned.
In the final stage Johannes Bø and Fourcade again stood side by side on the range, but this time Fourcade missed three while Bø hit every target to embark on the last loop with nearly a minute lead.
“He got the answer, and I didn’t…,” Fourcade sighed when he tried to explain what had happened in his final shooting. “With the snow conditions I went on my shooting mat a little late, I first had to open my rifle [sights snow cover] and I was simply a bit late compared to Johannes by just one or two seconds. … Then I heard that Johannes had a good shooting and I tried to shoot faster to catch him, and that was totally wrong today.”
“The people are always speaking about a fight of Martin against the Norwegian team,” Bø stated in the press conference. “Of course both me and him think about this, but still we fought together out there, we exchanged in the first position [helping each other], and that was a smart move for us.”
Fak managed to shoot clean again to leave the range for the last time in second, and while he could be relatively sure of second place, a fierce fight for third ensued behind him.
“It was very hard on the track, but I managed to stay calm on the shooting range and tried to shoot as [few] mistakes as I could,” Fak said. “It was only one mistake and so I am pretty happy about that, because if we look at the weather it was not so easy on the shooting range. On the track I used my shooting as an advantage, and it got me in the second position on the last lap, so I just needed to go a little faster in the beginning and then cruise to the finish.”
A group of Schempp, Tsvetkov and Tarjei Bø also came through the final stage with a clean shooting performance, and Fourcade joined them after he had completed his three penalty laps.
Fourcade led that group going into the longest climb of the course, then tried to break away, pushing hard over the crest of the hill with only Schempp able to stay on his tails into a corkscrew downhill section.
Schempp and Fourcade had a minor tangle as they positioned themselves on the slightly uphill finishing stretch, and Fourcade ended up outlasting Schempp in the final meters by half a second
“It was a big fight with Simon but also with Tarjei and Maxim Tsvetkov from Russia,” Fourcade said. “It was a big battle, and then at the finish line we crossed our skis. The advantage of being in the first position is that you can choose your own line, it’s what I did, and when I crossed my skis with Simon because I saw he chose the same line I went to the other line. … I said to Simon that I was sad, because I didn’t want to do it this way, but I fought really hard on the track to get the first position and choose my own track because it’s a big advantage.”
“In the finish sprint I really wanted to take the innermost lane, so wide right, and thought he’d take the middle lane,” Schempp told German broadcaster ARD in a post-race interview, according to a translation. “But then he still pulled onto my side and we tangled up and got a little bit into each other’s way, but everything is all right.”
Tarjei Bø came to the finish a second later in fifth (+1:11.9) with two penalties (1+0+1+0), while Tsvetkov finished sixth (+1:12.3), up from a 20th starting position, with just one penalty (1+0+0+0).
“I am happy I am in the top six, but I am a bit sad that I can’t fight today for a top three,” Tsvetkov told the IBU in an interview, via a translator.
“[Actually] I can’t understand why I missed today,” he added with a laugh when questioned about his lone penalty, which only he, Fak, and two more athletes achieved in this race.
The IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen concludes on Sunday with the first men’s 4 x 7.5 k and women’s 4 x 6 k relays of the season.
Fourcade announced during the press conference that he plans to skip the relay to focus on next week’s races in front of a home crowd in Le Grand Bornand, France.
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.