The 2020-21 BMW IBU Men’s World Cup commenced in precisely the same setting that brought the 2019-20 edition to its conclusion. Kontiolahti, Finland, welcomed the biathletes, but just as had been the case in March, the stands were empty due to the world wide pandemic.
Even if the backdrop was identical, the outcome could hardly have been more different. Almost nine months ago, the legend Martin Fourcade, was victorious in the last world cup race of his career. This time around an unheralded “newbie”, won in only his fifth world cup start.
Our biathlon model begs to differ. It ranked Laegreid among the main challengers to the favourite Johannes Thingnes Boe. The modelled ranked Laegreid as the fifth most likely winner, giving him a five to six percent chance of winning.
If we go by the “projected second behind metric” he was even ranked in second place, some 57 second behind Johannes Thingnes Boe, but ahead of the likes of Quentin Fillon Maillet who was projected to be 62 seconds behind and Tarjei Boe who was projected to be 69 second behind.
Laegreid’s brilliant shooting, combined with decent skiing speed, which he showed in his world cup races towards the end of the 2019-20 season, indicated that he would be a contender for races of this format, with a shot penalty of a full minute.
The real surprise in my opinion is not that he won, but that he won on a day that both Johannes Thingnes Boe and Quentin Fillon Maillet hit 19 of 20 targets.
Laegreid himself sided with the mainstream press though, calling his victory, surreal.
Two years ago he caught mononucleosis and was not allowed to train for eight months. The time was well spent though, as he studied videos of Martin Fourcade on the shooting range. To the Norwegian broadcaster NRK, Laegreid said something along the lines of:
“I always try to emulate the best, and when I could not train, I watched some of Fourcade’s races and how he changed his shooting position. I think I picked up some good stuff, which I try to use in my own shooting. It is mostly small details.
Fourcade’s shooting was exceptionally stable, he handled different conditions well. When he entered the range, he always had a plan based on how well he was doing in the race. He was great at adapting.”
Entering the range for the last time, shooting for a potential victory, Laegreid managed to put all thoughts aside:
“What is important is to the clear the mind and to focus on the work at hand”
To the Norwegian daily, VG, he said:
“When I pass a predefined point on the course, before entering the range, I will reset and start focusing purely on my breathing. This seems to work well for me.”
Below is a video with the pre-race interview he did with NRK’s on site reporter.
As usual the IBU have made highlights of the race available on youtube:
Sturla Holm Laegreid was also unsurprisingly IBU’s “athlete of the week”:
Breakthrough moments are usually best experienced with native commentary, below is a short video put together from the NRK footage.
Johannes Thingnes Boe did not manage to win the first race of the new season, but his second place finish should still be seen as an unqualified success, considering his shaky start in the Norwegian team’s test races.
Last year’s winner of the large crystal bowl has made changes to his rifle stock before this season, hoping that a better fit for his shoulder would enable him to improve his accuracy on the range. That he missed four shots, down to the left, on his first prone shooting, in the first test race, naturally made him uneasy going into the world cup season. Likely even more so, as he produced these misses in near perfect shooting conditions with no wind.
Hitting 19 of 20 and producing the fastest skiing time of the race, proved that he is in a position to carry on dominating the men’s races. Especially so as his former main rival, Martin Fourcade, retired at the end of last season.
Erik Lesser came into the German team’s test races in Muonio in northern Finland knowing that he would have to earn his spot to compete in Kontiolahti. Five male athletes had already been selected by German coach Mark Kirchner. Lesser did earn his spot, winning both the test competitions, a sprint and a pursuit. He impressed with both good shooting, with his new rifle, as well as good skiing speed. After a few disappointing seasons, the 32 year old former world champion seems to be back near his best.
Below is a video of the press conference with the three athletes who made the podium.
Our model’s second favourite for the overall world cup, Quentin Fillon Maillet finished in fourth place. He shot well, but skied maybe a touch slower than expected. He produced the ninth fastest skiing time, 63 seconds slower than Johannes Thingnes Boe. The French athletes have done a lot of training at altitude coming into the season and their skiing speed on average was slightly worse than I had anticipated.
The fight for the third and final spot on the podium was very tight. Czech veteran Ondrej Moravec hit all the targets and left the range for the final time with a lead of 12.5 seconds to Fillon Maillet in fourth and 21.9 seconds to Lesser in fifth. Even as Moravec was still in third place at the last split with only some one and a half minute left to ski, he dropped two places to finish fifth.
Lesser was fifth at the last split, but finished exceptionally fast to move into third.
Martin Ponsiluoma confirmed that the raving reviews about his skiing speed in training, from the Swedish coaches, was not just empty words as he produced the second fastest skiing time of the day. He was far from the only fast Swede, as Sebastian Samuelsson was third fastest on the tracks and Jesper Nelin sixth fastest.
The birthday boy, Lithuania’s Vytautas Strolia, had a very good performance finishing in 16th and Tuomas Harjula performed well for the home team grabbing 14th place.