Biathlon Canada’s World Cup Team at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, had a number of things to be happy about on Saturday afternoon as the first men’s 10-kilometer sprint race of the new season wrapped up.
Christian Gow was already smiling at the cameras as he stood in the starting-gate booth. Beginning the sprint as the very first starter in a large field of 108 athletes from 30 nations, Gow soon would have every reason to smile, as all alone on the range he shot clean in both his prone and standing stages under the watchful eyes of the spectators and his coach Matthias Ahrens, who watched through the lens of his spyglass. Gow kept himself ahead of the field and was the first athlete across the line after avoiding being passed.
“I enjoyed starting with bib 1 more than I expected,” Gow wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I found that there are some extra elements that you don’t really consider when you start in the middle of the pack. The biggest differences are not having any information on splits for the first loop and that shooting on the range with no other athletes is kind of eerie. It is normally such a busy place, so to have it all to yourself and the entire crowd focused solely on you can add extra pressure. I am really happy with how I managed that today.”
He had to wait for a long time for the other starters to finish the race so he could know where his time stood. In the end, it was good enough for 26th place, 58.1 seconds back from the winner, Norway’s Tarjei Bø, in a very tight race at the top.
“I knew that the entire field was still to come, but that I had done my job so all I needed to do at that point was wait,” Gow wrote. “I am quite happy with my placing. With my time back from the leader being under one minute, I was hoping for a top 20, but am very satisfied anyways. Finishing in the top 30 is awesome, I have been on the cusp a half-dozen times, but only within it once before.”
Last season, in the World Championships pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria, Gow finished 23rd.
Starting a few minutes behind him in bib 24, his older brother Scott also cleaned both stages and skied a little faster, initially crossing the line in fifth..
“It was almost frustrating having to wait so long to finally see the full results,” Scott Gow wrote in an email. “I knew I had a good day, but I also felt like a lot of skiers were finishing in front me as the race wore on.”
In the end, a few more athletes finished with better times, and he got pushed back to 16th. Even so, 16th was a personal-best World Cup result for Gow, improving on a 17th place in an individual race in Antholz, Italy, and an 18th place in a sprint in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, both during the 2016/2017 season.
“Any finish in the top 30 and especially top 20 is very good for us,” Gow said of his team. “Today’s results helps increase my Olympic qualification which is a nice boost in confidence as the race season gets underway.”
With a top 16, Gow jumped a rank in Biathlon Canada’s Olympic criteria standards; he’s now halfway to Priority 2 (along with teammate Julia Ransom, who placed ninth earlier this week). Both need another top 16 to fulfill that second priority.
“It had rained a bit this afternoon and during our zero,” Scott Gow explained of Saturday’s conditions. “The rain made the track very fast and hard-packed, and the downhills were particularly tricky. The course also held up really well from start to finish so definitely fair conditions in that respect.”
Aside from the eventual winner, another athlete helped by that was teammate Nathan Smith. Starting very late in bib 103, he also managed to hit all 10 targets ultimately finished 24th (+54.3) between the Gow brothers.
While not close to his career-best results in the top five, most of which he achieved in 2014/2015, it was another step up for Smith, who placed 37th in the 20 k individual race on Thursday and missed most of the last season to illness.
“I expect to feel better this weekend in the sprint but will have to be realistic considering the cold and being ‘rusty’ after not racing last year, other than a few races,” he had predicted in an email after the individual on Thursday.
The fourth Canadian, Brendan Green finished 55th with two penalties (1+1), still also qualifying for the pursuit of the best 60 starters on Sunday.
Bailey Leads Five Americans in 22nd
US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey also shot clean on Saturday, finishing 22nd and 49.8 seconds back from the winner, and six seconds ahead of Canada’s Smith.
”I’m happy with the race, especially after coming off of a cold this past week,” Bailey wrote in an email. “Our performance goals are to steadily progress with the season. I think this is a good step in the right direction.”
Last season, Bailey had achieved his career best in a sprint with a second place in the World Cup test event for the Olympic courses in PyeongChang, South Korea. Those races will be his main focus this season.
“The conditions on the track were MUCH faster than the Individual, which proved one of the slowest conditions I’ve encountered in my career!” Bailey explained. “The range was a bit tricky, with shifting winds, and I had at least one prone shot that was on the edge of the target.”
The other starters for US Biathlon struggled a bit more on the range today. Tim Burke placed 52nd, 1:42.3 back with three penalties (3+0), joining Bailey in the pursuit on Sunday.
“As seems to be the case in this race each year, the field is incredibly tight for tomorrow’s pursuit. It will be an exciting race,” Bailey stated in a US Biathlon press release.
Leif Nordgren finished 66th with two penalties (1+1), Sean Doherty was 82nd with three penalties (2+1), and Paul Schommer was 94th with four penalties (1+3).
While the three Canadians and Bailey shot clean, the men at the top of the field incurred at least one penalty and thus had to rely on their ski speed in this race.
Another Day, Another Bø Brother
On Thursday in the men’s 20 k individual race, France’s Martin Fourcade was beaten by Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, gapped by over two minutes in a dominating performance. On Saturday afternoon, Johannes missed too many targets to challenge Fourcade again, ultimately finishing 11th (+34.4 with three penalties).
But starting towards the back of the field in bib 94 when Fourcade had already ended his race, Bø’s older brother Tarjei snatched another victory away from Fourcade, who had already looked like the winner of the day after making up a deficit to two other athletes with one of his trademark furious final laps.
This time he was beaten by mere inches.
Still 7 seconds ahead of Fourcade when Bø left the range, after he also had to ski once through the penalty loop, Bø’s lead dwindled on the final lap. At the next split time, only a 3.1-second advantage remained, with 400 meters to go it was even down to 0.9 seconds heading into a downhill corkscrew into the arena.
“You can never trust those guys giving you the times,” Bø later joked about his coaches frantically yelling splits during the press conference. “Because they want to push you, so even if they say it’s one second you can also be behind.”
Pushing all out on the finish stretch, Bø lunged and crashed across the line in a time of 22:40.6 minutes, which was 0.7 seconds ahead of Fourcade’s time, causing the spectators in the ski arena of Östersund to erupt in a big roar.
“I was totally blacked out, to be honest,” Bø said at the press conference. “I had this incredible fight with Martin. Already when I warmed up I saw his last 500 meters, so I knew I had to just keep on pushing. It was such a relief after I woke up from the dead there, to see that I was number one… It’s always a mental game when you fight against such great athletes as Martin.”
It was Tarjei Bø’s first World Cup victory since the 2013 season, a sprint win at home in Oslo, Norway.
“It was a really tough time,” the 29-year-old Bø recounted the last few seasons of his career. “In 2016 I felt I sort of came back into the top. … I was going somewhere again. But then last season was a new punch in the face … I missed so much training. This season I tried not to push so hard in the summer to keep this flow in the training and not get stopped by all these sickness problems again. This win is definitely a relief after so many years with struggles.”
“It was quite a good biathlon competition until Tarjei came to the finish,” Fourcade said with a laugh at the press conference. “Of course I am a bit disappointed because I hoped for the victory for a long time … But that’s biathlon, and I am happy for him to be back on the top of the podium … I think I lost many times with less than one second, so I am used to that, but I am used to the opposite as well, so I will not cry.”
“Finally, I can say that I am equal with [my brother] Johannes again,” Bø added. “Fighting with Martin, who also has a brother [Simon Fourcade]… And when the younger brother becomes better than you, it’s so nice to beat them every once in a while.”
Germany’s Erik Lesser finished third, just 3.7 seconds back, after he also incurred one penalty lap in his standing stage, in his case with his last shot of the race. Lesser skied the 10th-ranked course time of the day, but was especially buoyed by his blazing-fast speed on the shooting range.
Lesser triggered the first shot in prone after only about eight seconds, almost twice as fast as some athletes use to take their position, and completed the stage roughly ten seconds faster than the two other podium finishers. His range time overall ranked as the best and shooting time as the second-best of the day, just 0.6 seconds behind Italy’s Dominik Windisch (however, Windisch also missed four targets to finish 62nd).
“Not 100% satisfied, I didn’t do my job on the final shot,” Lesser told German broadcaster ZDF while the race was still going on. “Though I’d rather miss the final than the first shot… But on the course it was top. In prone everything worked out, and I think the shooting time was again where I’d like it to be.”
“I am very happy that I won my first podium in a sprint competition, I never was on a podium [in that] before so right now I am very happy about this,” he later added at the press conference.
Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen had to settle for fourth place (+13.3), but could be seen walking out of the mixed zone smiling as Bø approached the finish to push him off the podium, and Lesser’s teammate Simon Schempp placed fifth (+15.0), both of which each had one standing penalty.
Switzerland’s Mario Dolder with a career-best sixth place (+16.0) and Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström in seventh position (+16.7) shot clean, but could not match the course times of the podium finishers on Saturday. Out of the entire field, nine athletes shot clean. Four of them were North Americans.
The race week in Östersund concludes on Sunday with pursuits for both the women and men.
“The level is incredible, I think 30 athletes within one minute,” Fourcade said in the press conference. “I don’t know if I have already seen that in a pursuit, so tomorrow will be a great fight.”
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.