Laegreid admitted he had low expectations, but was able repeat last season’s success. “It is like déjà vu. Last season I came out of nowhere and took a win I did not expect. Today I did not have the best shape; I know I can be better. Still, I managed to shoot clean and it was enough for the win. I hope to be copying last season because Last season was very good.”
He likes the mental aspect of biathlon’s toughest and longest competition. “The more mental, the better for me. I enjoy it, but it is a tough game. Today, I fought for every one of the twenty shots and I managed to get them in. I am rewarded with a win; it is an amazing feeling.”
Scott Gow of Canada picked up a big personal best in fourth place, shooting clean, 1:26.8 back. Gow’s previous best result was 10th place in last season’s closing mass start, ironically also in Oestersund. Johannes Thingnes Boe, with two penalties finished fifth, 1:28.5 back. Clean-shooting Sivert Guttorm Bakken in sixth place, 1:29.4 back gave Norway four of the top six finishers.
Little changed between the women’s and men’s competitions except it got a bit colder and complete darkness had set in. A light breeze remained, blowing directly into the athlete’s faces, making perfect shooting a premium in the floodlit stadium. Johannes Thingnes Boe, wearing Yellow started his season with a single penalty in the first prone stage. Roman Rees of Germany led early, but Tarjei matched to move in front. Local favorite Jesper Nelin one-upped the Norwegian with his own clean stage moving into the top spot but faded after that.
Despite the prone miss, the Yellow Bib came back strong in standing, cleaning easily. Rees then went 10-for-10. Tarjei picked up a penalty, putting him 37 seconds behind Rees. When Laegreid came to the range, everything changed, going to 10-for-10, dropping Rees from the top spot. Bakken made a push for the podium with his second perfect stage, moving into fourth position. Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen further showed the Norwegian team’s strength with his second clean stage to get into the top four.
JT missed again in the second prone stage, while Rees missed his first shot but it was good enough for him to remain in the lead. Tarjei came back with another clean prone to briefly take the lead. Then Laegreid added five more perfect shots, moving 32 seconds ahead of his teammate. The second prone stage saw Desthieux in the mix, cleaning and jumping from eleventh to third. However, Christiansen, on the move, easily cleaned for the third time, closing to within nine seconds of Laegreid.
Tarjei had a single penalty in the last standing but went out in the lead. Eduard Latypov completed his good day with a clean stage to leave just behind Tarjei. Laegreid showed he can compete with fans in the stands, coolly and quickly closing his last five targets to take a lead of over 1:20 with 4 km to go. Bakken also went to 20-for-20, leaving 8 seconds ahead of Tarjei. Christiansen’s podium bid fell short with three penalties, dropping him far down the standings
Tarjei flew around the last loop, but Laegreid several minutes behind in the start order was in control of the top spot. The older Boe brother was fighting for second against his brother and Desthieux, who left the last standing in fifth, nine seconds behind his Norwegian rival. The French star was not fast enough to catch Tarjei who held second but moved up to third, blocking a Norwegian podium sweep.
Laegreid crossed the line, spent but with enough energy to wave to the TV camera after taking his second consecutive season-opening victory. As he said, “Déjà vu!
Although he won, Laegreid thinks his shape has a way to go. “I need a lot of races to get the shape. Each week I will get faster and faster. I am not stressed about my shape; I think it will get good for the Olympics.”
The veteran Tarjei admitted his respect for the 20 km as well as his teammates. “It is a long one. You have done it for 15 years; still, it is a challenging distance. To be honest, with two mistakes, I was lucky to have second place today. Sturla was in his own league on the range and then I was the best of group number two. Big respect to Sturla; it was a big fight with Simon and some of my teammates were there. Great day for Norway and a great day for me.”
Desthieux credited his good last loop to support from teammate Antonin Guigonnat. “It was a great fight. The individual in Oestersund is never easy…It has the long uphill and I like that. I am good in this track…Antonin helped me in the last lap; thanks to him. He tried to be better, to help me take the podium. That’s great to share with teammates…Happy to start the season like this.”
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni