Laegreid, Chevalier-Bouchet Romp at Fourcade Festival

Local favorite Anais Chevalier-Bouchet thrilled the French fans when she cleaned the last standing stage, sealing a 22:46.1 victory the women’s mass start Saturday afternoon at the Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival in Annecy, France. However, an hour later, Sturla Holm Laegreid one-upped the French star in the men’s mass start. He cleaned the last standing with a single spare round, turned, waving to the fans and skied away to a 25:02.4 victory; all before any of his rivals had entered the stadium.

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Behind Chevalier-Bouchet Tiril Eckhoff finished second, 14 seconds back while Franziska Preuss finished third, 29.2 seconds back. Eckhoff led the field of eight women coming into the standing stages, then everything turned in Chevalier-Bouchet’s favor; she went 5-for 5 in the first standing, while Eckhoff needed spare rounds to clean. With just a nine-second lead coming into the last standing stage, Chevalier-Bouchet ripped off five quick shots and was gone, with Eckhoff and Preuss both using spare rounds, they left over 15 seconds back. The roaring crowds lining the tracks along beautiful Lake Annecy and in the 4,000 seat stadium roared as Chevalier-Bouchet claimed the victory, while Eckhoff pulled away from Preuss in the last loop, setting the podium.

Health Pass, Masks and Enthusiasm

After the podium ceremonies with the photos and the champagne bottles popped, one theme resonated from every athlete: the fans. Having the fans back in the stadium, cheering loudly added an emotion that the competitors sorely missed during the last pandemic-affected season. Having the fans in the tribune plus thousands along the tracks was no easy task. Every ticketed person had to have an electronic French Health Pass, checked at the entrance while mask-wearing was mandatory. Yet that did not curb their enthusiasm. They were as thrilled to see their heroes as the athletes were to have them there.

Deafening Roars

Chevalier-Bouchet was almost deafened by the roaring crowds. “It was amazing. I can hear nothing now because of the (ringing gesture) in my ears! My standing shooting was incredible. I just do not remember much about it.”

Eckhoff: “Anais got a little bit more cheering”

Eckhoff after five spare rounds, added with her typical candor, “Well, some of my shooting was good and some was not so good. So, I guess there is still some work to be done this fall on the shooting range. Still, it was fun. Everyone was cheering for me, but Anais got a little bit more cheering. But it was nice to see spectators again; I look forward to seeing more spectators.” Preuss called her day, “fun but hard. The track is flat so you always have to use your power and that is not so easy. But the atmosphere and the area where the tracks are is really nice.”

No Pressure for Fialkova

Fourth place Paulina Fialkova explained the importance of the fans. “It was a lot of fun. I am really happy about the spectators, because I missed them last winter. It is always a different race when you have them. The spectators were cheering for everyone. Some say they add a little bit more pressure, but not for me, I like it.”

Powerful Laegreid

Second place in the men’s competition went to surprising Said Karimulla Khalili, 48.6 seconds back with Benedikt Doll third 1:00.7 back. Although Chevalier-Bouchet’s win was clear-cut, Laegreid’s was a rout. He left the first standing stage over 30 seconds ahead of Doll, Khalili and, Quentin Fillon Maillet and Jakov Fak. Last year’s breakout star, admitting “I had so much power today,” continued to build his lead, cruising easily into the last standing and using six shots to close his five targets. Leaving with a lead well over a minute, he thoroughly enjoyed a victory lap, acknowledging and high-fiving the fans all along the tracks and through the finish line. Khalili was like Laegreid well ahead of his chasers, but Doll moved to third with a hard sprint in the middle of the last loop to finish ahead of Fillon Maillet.

Fan Energy

Laegreid whose big season came with no fans in the tribunes. now can say he can win either an empty or fan-filled stadium admitted, “Having the fans here gives me more energy…I used the fans to give me energy… I am a very lucky man today, thank you Annecy. It was great fun, merci beaucoup!” Commenting on his high-fives and waves to the crowd, he added, “The last loop for me was amazing; I saw I had a big gap and it was just like you have this chance and do not know if you will ever get it again, so it was just a joy!”

Khalili Impressed; Doll Sprints

Khalili, just 11 years old when he met his idol Martin Fourcade was thrilled with podium finish and the big crowd. “I am very happy because this is a great event and there were very strong athletes in the race. I am very happy just to be here with so many fans. It was organized like a World Cup. I hope that I can get invited again.”

Doll made it to the podium with a big last loop sprint. “I put in a long sprint in the last loop to get past Fillon Maillet; something I have training for all season. After the race he told me I was too fast for him, so the training must be good!”

Fourcade Festival: “I just like it”

Summing up the second Martin Fourcade Nordic Festival, Doll “not the youngest guy here” said, “I always like the French spectators. They are really fair and cheer for all of the athletes. That makes it a lot of fun, along with the beautiful weather and nice atmosphere. I just like it!”

Photos: Manzoni + Thibaut/Nordicfestival, Jerry Kokesh

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