After cleaning the fourth and final shooting stage in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit on Saturday at the 2018 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Oberhof, Germany, Martin Fourcade of France hoisted the biathlon rifle onto his back, spun around and fully faced the way he’d come, glancing for a moment at his three closest competitors behind him: Norwegians Johannes Thingnes Bø and his older brother Tarjei Bø, and Emil Hegle Svendsen, before heading out on the final loop while his closest challengers were all still shooting on the range.
Was it a new gesture to assert his dominance in the sport instead of celebrating with a fist pump or raised arm when he crossed the finish line, or was he genuinely curious how they were doing?
“I will answer diplomatically. Yesterday I heard from the Norwegian press that Emil [Hegle Svendsen] said I feared the Norwegian team,” Fourcade said when asked about ‘the stare’ in a post-race press conference. “I have a lot of respect for them. I know how good they are because they show me every weekend. They can beat me in every competition, but I don’t fear them like they don’t fear me! It was my answer to them.”
Fourcade then looked over to Tarjei Bø sitting next to him on the podium who laughed and replied: “Really good answer!”
In the race, Johannes Bø cleaned his targets to follow his French rival onto the last loop, 16.3 seconds back, followed by his brother Tarjei another ten seconds later, while the third Norwegian Svendsen, who had shot head-to-head in a duel against Fourcade in the first stages, incurred his only miss of the day and had to ski 150 extra meters in the penalty lap, thus slipping from second to fourth.
Johannes Bø skied faster on the final loop than Fourcade, getting closer and closer, and the French biathlete surely would have kicked himself for his unorthodox maneuver on the range if he had squandered his lead and lost by inches in a finishing sprint. But that didn’t happen, and Fourcade could celebrate across the line in a time of 30:49.5 minutes, with just one penalty.
Johannes Bø crossed the line 6.3 seconds after him with three penalties, while his clean-shooting brother Tarjei finished third, 30.9 seconds back.
Svendsen, the runner-up in Friday’s sprint, had to settle for fourth place (+1:04.7) with one penalty in the pursuit, while Ukraine’s Dmytro Pidruchnyi was fifth (+1:16.2) also with one penalty.
“I missed in the first prone together with Martin, then the rest of the race I fell a little bit behind in each shooting … so I was never really in the fight for the win,” Johannes Bø said in the press conference. “But in the end I got the second place. If Martin had stood [on the range] two seconds longer maybe I would have caught him!”
Asked if it added extra pressure on the range having to shoot directly against his brother, he added with a laugh: “Yeah, it’s like a cat-and-mouse game. We have done it for as long as … some 20 years. So there is not much difference. I won, like at home.”
“I was one penalty loop behind the guys after the sprint, so I knew they had to make a [mistake] for me to have a chance,” Tarjei Bø said. “I was always some seconds behind, I was never fighting for the win but fighting for the podium. … The level was really high, we were four guys together, and to be honest it’s really fun to have these fights when you know you have to deliver your best to have a chance to win.”
Asked about the friendly rivalry with his brother, he added: “The only problem is whenever Johannes has been on the podium he has beaten me every time. It’s not so fun, so I need to improve! Today were were together at the last shooting, and he showed me he was better. So … do you have any tip for me? You all have seen biathlon for ten years, you don’t have anything?!”
Best Pursuit of the Season for Burke
US Biathlon’s Tim Burke had started the pursuit race in fourth and 20 seconds behind Fourcade after his season-best performance in Friday’s sprint, and initially remained in the top of the field in the pursuit after cleaning his first prone stage.
He then skied the next loop with eventual third-place finisher Tarjei Bø, who skied the overall 10th-fastest course time of the day while Burke was 22nd overall. Burke then incurred two penalty laps in his second prone stage
“Going with Bø on the second loop was definitely fast but I felt in control,” Burke wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I don’t think this had anything to do with the two prone misses in the second stage. I just simply missed, which happens in biathlon sometimes.”
Burke had fallen back a bit to the eighth position as he returned to the course, then after the third loop, cleaned his first standing shooting stage, but was passed by two competitors. He missed one more in his final standing stage and set back out on the course in 14th position.
On the final lap and in an extended sprint for positions on the slightly inclined, very long and straight finish stretch in Oberhof, he skied with Russia’s Anton Shipulin (who ended up 12th, +1:43.1, with one penalty) and the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Moravec (13th, +1:43.6, three penalties) who had left the range two seconds behind him, while Burke managed to overtake Sweden’s Frederik Lindström (+1:45.8; no penalties), one of only three athletes to shoot clean in all stages.
Burke thus ended his day still in 14th, 1:43.7 behind Fourcade, with three penalties (0+2+0+1). It was his best result in a pursuit this season.
“I was able to push reasonably well on the last loop today, which was a first for me this season,” he wrote. “I will take this as a good sign for the upcoming races.”
No other athlete for US Biathlon qualified for the pursuit in the top 60 of Friday’s sprint, with Sean Doherty finishing 84th position in the sprint the day before.
Career-Best for Christian Gow
For Biathlon Canada, Christian Gow moved up from a 36th starting position after the sprint to finish 21st, 2:19.2 back, with only one penalty incurred in his last stage (0+0+0+1).
With this performance he tied his career-best individual result from a pursuit in Östersund, Sweden, during this season’s opening weekend.
“I am really happy with my result today,” Gow wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “This is one of the best ski races I have ever had, and the shooting was really solid as well. I wish I could have made one more spot, but it was a great race anyways.”
Gow wasn’t too bothered by the rainy conditions the biathletes encountered all week in Oberhof, including on Saturday.
“The course held up quite well considering the weather we have been having here, the hills were firm which made for a much more pleasant race,” he wrote in an email. “The shooting range was the calmest I have ever seen in Oberhof, so it was very manageable today.”
Gow skied the 28th-ranked course time of the day, including a second loop where he was the 11th-fastest athlete.
“I skied with [Norway’s] Lars Birkeland and [Sweden’s] Sebastian Samuelsson at different points in the race […] which was really helpful for keeping the ski pace high,” he explained.
On the range, the 24-year-old Calgary native remained clean through three stages moving up as high as 17th, until he came to the final shooting stage.
“I felt really calm for all of my range entries today, including the last one up until I hit the shooting mat,” Gow wrote. “At that point I realized that I was having a really good race and that another clean shooting would really solidify a strong result. I tried to put that aside and focus on being aggressive in the shooting in order to not allow time to think and make mistakes. Unfortunately, I was a bit too aggressive on my second shot which resulted in a miss, but I refocused really nicely from there and hit the rest.”
He came out of the penalty lap in 21st position, and kept that place into the finish by overtaking Russian-born athlete Timofei Lapshin, who races for South Korea, while being passed by Russia’s Alexander Loginov on the final lap.
Also starting in the pursuit for Biathlon Canada, his brother Scott Gow finished 50th (+4:45.0), after starting in 32nd then incurring six penalties on the range (2+1+1+2), and Brendan Green ended the race in 54th, 5:26.1 minutes back, improving by three spots while shooting three penalties (0+2+0+1).
The IBU World Cup weekend in Oberhof will conclude with the second relay races of the season on Sunday. The Canadians are slated to start the men’s relay with the two Gow brothers, Green, and Carsen Campbell, while the Canadian women’s team will include Sarah Beaudry, Julia Ransom, Megan Tandy and Emma Lunder.
US Biathlon won’t be able to enter a women’s or men’s relay, after the team only had Susan Dunklee and Clare Egan as well as Burke and Doherty as the athletes already qualified for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, representing it in Oberhof. Reigning world champion Lowell Bailey, who is also prequalified for the Olympics, skipped the races in Oberhof for a longer rest and training period at home, just like he did a season ago.
The other potential candidates for PyeongChang are competing this weekend in two sprints at an IBU Cup in Brezno-Osrblie, Slovakia, which together with next week’s races in Arber, Germany, serve as the Olympic trials to round on the team.
“We will indeed miss the relay tomorrow but plan to race the relay in Ruhpolding [next Friday],” Burke wrote regarding the men’s team. “I don’t see this as a problem. In fact, it will be nice to have an extra day break with a tough 20k coming up on Wednesday.”
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.