Although these two battled all season, 23-year-old BMW IBU World Cup rookie Sivert Guttorm Bakken was the early leader (6th and 8th places) after the first two competitions in Oestersund. Samuelsson might have taken the lead, but 40th place in the season-opening 20 km left him lagging.
Then Samuelsson, with two sprint wins and second in the season’s first pursuit jumped into the driver’s seat. From that point, he controlled the Blue Bib, while Laegreid struggled with health, ski speed and off-the-mark shooting. After falling ill and missing the Oestersund pursuit the Norwegian was happy to leave Sweden.
Laegreid was well enough to compete in Hochfilzen, but the missed days left him far from top shape. Samuelsson’s third place in the Hochfilzen pursuit, put him 95 points up and in Yellow.
Samuelsson’s fast start skidded in Le Grand Bornand: losing the Yellow Bib while Laegreid, feeling better, beat his Swedish rival in two of the three competitions.
2022 and the second trimester saw these young stars focusing on one thing: the Beijing Olympic Winter Games. Bibs suddenly meant nothing while the once-in-four-year opportunity to win an Olympic medal can be life-changing. Laegreid returned from holidays admitting the “I never picked up my rifle,” but unquestionably was in a better place both mentally and health-wise, gaining momentum with third in the sprint well ahead of his rival. “I had to relax a bit because I was really tired. I had this sickness in Oestersund and did not get my shape back to 100%. I just used the Christmas period for first resting and then after training hard, it worked out.”
The Norwegian men skipped Ruhpolding, trading it for a week of altitude training. Samuelsson missed this big points opportunity with 18th and 7th places before heading off to his altitude week.
Laegreid remained on the upswing in Antholz with 3rd in the mass start, giving him 39 more points than his rival in the second trimester, compared to the first trimester 91-point differential.
Jumping past the Olympic Winter Games where neither won an individual medal although Laegreid won Relay Gold, their tussle for under-25 supremacy restarted.
The Otepaeae sprint shifted the momentum to Laegreid with a clean-shooting second place. A hotly contested mass start narrowed the gap to 22 points with three competitions remaining.
By Oslo, although tired, neither was ready to throw in the towel. Laegreid won the sprint, saying, “to win (here) is like a medal in a Championships, it is so unbelievable… I gave my best today; made my perfect race.” Not to be outdone, Samuelson was third, also shooting clean. His thoughts about battling for the Total Score top three mirroring his competition with Laegreid. “I need to focus on doing as good on the tracks and the shooting range. I know if I do it good, it will be hard for them to overpass me. It will be a hard fight.”
Laegreid could have sealed the Blue Bib with a pursuit win, but after leading into the last standing, he missed two shots, finishing third, one place in front of Samuelsson.
The season’s final day of was a mass start showdown for the Blue Bib and top three spot in the Total Score. Laegreid dominated the prone stages, shooting clean in front of the field. Samuelsson ceded nothing, matching five seconds back. He then cleaned the first standing stage while his Norwegian rival skied a penalty loop. Everything hinged on the last standing stage. The two lined up next side-by-side; the Norwegian flew through the five targets, missing one and was gone. Samuelsson missed his last three shots, sealing his fate. Laegreid barely missed the win finishing second, while Samuelsson fell to 11th.
Final tally: 736 points, Blue Bib title and second in the Total Score for Sturla to 717 and Total Score third place (first Swede in Top Three since Mikael Lofgren’s 1993 victory) for Samuelsson.
The Norwegian captured the Blue Bib Under 25 title for the second consecutive year, despite a slow start. “For sure, it tasted much better this year because in the middle of the season I was quite far down in the Total Score. I had troubles with my shape before Christmas and my shooting after…I did not get the season I wanted…After the Olympics, I saw the chance to take some places…and then today it was between me and Samuelsson for who will win the Under 25 Globe.”
Both have now turned 25 and next year will see a new man in the Blue Bib, but this rivalry should continue for years to come…stay tuned.
Photos: IBU/ Christian Manzoni, Vianney Thibaut