Nordic festival are two words most North American ski fans can only dream about. Skinny skiers here are unlikely to experience the reality of such an event for themselves unless they make a trip across the Atlantic. For residents of France, the opportunity to participate in the second edition of the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival presented itself this weekend and there were many eager attendees. This lucky expat was among the masses.
For those unfamiliar with the name, Fourcade retired from biathlon competition in March 2020 after a very successful career, including five Olympic gold medals and thirteen World Championships titles. He is the most successful French Olympian of all time and is celebrated as a beloved hero in his home country. Anywhere he went this weekend, he was accompanied by cheers and a train of fans hoping for autographs, handshakes, or photos.
The festival stretched over three days, beginning Friday, September 3rd and wrapping up on Sunday the 5th. Located in Annecy, in the Haut-Savoie department of France, the stadium sat facing the electric blue water of Lac d’Annecy, rimmed by limestone bluffs.
It’s difficult to imagine a better setting for drawing crowds than the park Le Pâquier, which is right downtown and runs along the popular bike path that circumnavigates the lake. Indeed, the place was bustling with spectators all weekend long, both paying customers and those stopping by, drawn along the fence by all the commotion.
Tickets cost €33 (about $40), and were sold out before the event began. As evidence, several posts were made in the days leading up to the festival on the French nordic Craiglist-esque site, searching for available tickets.
In addition to tickets, to enter the venue one needed to present their pass sanitaire, essentially a health passport in the form of a QR code which proves either you’ve been vaccinated, had a negative COVID test in the last 72hrs or, recovered from COVID in the last 11 days to 6 months. Furthermore, masks were required, even though the event was taking place outdoors where typically masks are not required in France.
The festivities kicked off in earnest Friday night, beginning with a presentation of the athletes on stage. While 30 international athletes had been recruited to the event, not all were able to make the journey. Many French national team members were present, both biathletes and cross-country racers, including: Richard Jouve, Renaud Jay, Delphine Claudel, Julia Simon, Anais Chevalier-Bouchet, Antonin Guigonnat, and Quentin Fillon-Maillet.
As for the international contingent, some notable names in attendance were: Tiril Eckoff (NOR), Johannes Dale (NOR), Sturla Laegrid (NOR), Oskar Svensson (SWE), Jovian Hediger (SUI), Nadine Faendrich (SUI), Laurien van der Graaff (SUI), and Emma Ribom (SWE).
Following the presentation of athletes, a concert featuring Gaëtan Roussel, a well-known French musician drew quite a crowd and provided the festival with quite a lively start, setting the tune for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday started with the exposition village opening, a circle of vendor tents featuring nearly 60 brands, food and drink options, and shops. Attractions included, virtual biathlon, ski-erg competitions, and athlete appearances.
Lines at both the Fischer and Salomon tents stretched for quite a distance as athletes patiently sat for hours, signing autographs and taking photos with fans. Not only were famous nordic athletes present, but recent competitors in the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc mountain running series, such as Camille Bruyas who took second place in the storied 170 km full tour around Mont-Blanc, and Thiabuat Beronian who finished 3rd in the 100 km “CCC”. These events both end in Chamonix.
Gradually, the crowd began to shift focus towards the stadium, as athletes started warming up for the afternoon show races. Over 3,000 attendees filed into the stands, giving Martin Fourcade a cheer that lasted for minutes as he gave an introduction.
Explaining his motivation for organizing this event, Fourcade said, “When I think of a Nordic festival, I want an event that grows the sport, that shares the sport, and that promotes the sport.” He thanked the crowds for their support and provided a schedule for the afternoon events, starting with women’s biathlon.
Eight elite biathlete women toed the start line, headed by Eckoff of Norway. They completed four laps of the flat course, with two prone and two standing rounds of shooting. Eckoff lead to start, followed by Chevalier-Bouchet (FRA) who cleaned the standing shoot quickly and gained the lead for the penultimate lap, to the joy of the crowd.
She maintained her lead and entered the final shooting round with a bit of a lead to Eckoff (NOR), cleaning again in rapid time. Franziska Preuss of Germany was second out of the range, followed by Eckoff.
Out on the course, which at times was flanked directly by the lake where boaters had pulled close to cheer, Eckoff passed Preuss (GER) to find second place. Chevalier-Bouchet (FRA) finished first, Eckoff second (+14) and Preuss third (+29.2).
The spectators were thrilled to begin the competitions with a French victory and showed their appreciation in the form of overwhelming applause.
“Yeah it’s amazing,” said Chevalier-Bouchet after her victory, “Thanks everyone. I can’t hear anything because of the noise!”
Tiril Eckoff similarly enjoyed the support of the crowd and said, “It was very fun to be in such a good atmosphere again. It’s the first time in two and a half years to be in front of crowds so it’s really fun.”
Up next was the men’s biathlon. Guigonnat (FRA) was the first to clean and left the first round of shooting in the lead, while Fillon-Maillet (FRA), a fan favorite, struggled and exited well behind the pack. Through the second time, Doll of Germany was first to clean with Fak (SLO) right behind. Into the standing round, Laegrid (NOR) was the first to clean, Fak in second but with a penalty and Khalili (RUS) in third.
For the final time, Laegrid entered without anyone else in sight, shot 5/6 and left the range still in the lead. Khalili (RUS) was next out with Fak in third, followed closely by Fillon-Maillet who had made up ground and had a fast final round of shooting.
Laegrid skied the last lap with a healthy gap and high-fived fans as he headed for the finish with a big lead, ending in 25:02.4. The Russian, Khalili held on for second place and Doll (GER) took third having passed Fillon-Maillet (FRA) and Fak (SLO).
“I’m a very lucky man today so thank you Annecy!” said Laegrid after the race, “It was really fun and it was so nice to say hi to all my fans. Merci beaucoup!”
With the biathlon races concluded, the crowd lost some it’s density before the cross-country rounds, biathlon being more popular. Nevertheless, there were still plenty of spectators who stuck around as the women lined up for their event. Not a true sprint event, the cross-country skiers completed six laps in succession with the final skier across the lap line being eliminated each round.
The pack stayed tight for the first five laps, gradually losing skiers off the back. With a tight course, passing was quite difficult so the leaders did not change much. French skier Flora Dolci had the lead into the final lap, with the top seven athletes all within 1.4 seconds.
Faendrich (SUI) dropped off as they passed along the lake, and then there were six. Ribom (SWE) made a pass to the front, shadowed by Van der Graaff (SUI). Rounding the final corner Van der Graaff launched an attack but Ribom held her off, keeping the advantage heading into the finish.
Behind them, Dolci (FRA) outsprinted Claudel (FRA) to take third place, +4.5 back. “I felt really strong out there so it was a fun race,” said Ribom, “My plan was to have a good position the whole race so I tried to stay in the front and keep on pushing to the finish line.”
Post race interview with Emma Ribom:
Van der Graaff, who speaks a bit of French, said, “I am very happy with the competition but not to do an interview in French! I tried really hard to get a second win here, but Emma was really strong.”
The final race of the day was the men’s cross-country. With such tight pack racing there was sure to be some broken equipment out there and sure enough, nearly every lap saw someone with a broken pole. Hugo Lapalus (FRA) was the first to be eliminated, Hediger (SUI) broke a pole near the end of the second lap and was next to stop.
Svensson (SWE) dropped off the pace during the third lap and was stopped, followed by Valentine Chauvin (FRA) on the next lap. Jouve (FRA), a race favorite, broke a pole in lap three but managed to hang with the group, only to be eliminated with two laps to go. Heading into the final lap, Adrien Backscheider (FRA) had the lead, with Marcus Grate (SWE) the last to be eliminated.
As they neared the finish, Jay (FRA) and Pål Aune (NOR) were duking it out, ultimately the win going to Jay. Arnaud Chautemps of France finished third.
“I’m really happy,” said Jay, “I wasn’t able to be here two years ago so this is really nice.”
After the professionals raced on Saturday, it was the public’s turn to compete on Sunday. The “Biathlon Running” was open to all, involving teams of 4-6 in a relay style event. First up to compete were the kids, racing a 1km course with obstacles and shooting in between laps, followed by the adult teams.
There were three categories to sign up under (Mixed, female, and male) and the price was €200/team. The competitors were enthusiastic and lots of smiles were seen out on course, a fun way to wrap up a fun weekend.
Growing up in Washington’s Methow Valley, Ella was immersed in skiing and the ski community from a young age. From early days bundled in the pulk, to learning to ski as soon as she could walk, to junior racing, a few seasons of collegiate racing, and then to coaching, she has experienced the ski world in many forms. Now, as a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, she finds herself living in France splitting her time between teaching English at a university in Lyon, avidly following ski racing (and now writing about it!) and adventuring in the outdoors as often as possible.