In the first competition of this week’s six-race series in Oberhof, Germany, Olga Vilukhina anchored the Russian women’s relay team to a victory, the nation’s fourth in a row on biathlon’s World Cup circuit.
But in the last competition, Sunday’s 15 k mass start, a different team became dominant. Germany’s Andreas Birnbacher shot 20 for 20 and skied to a 24-second win, annihilating the rest of the 30-man field. In the process, he gave his team its own fourth win in a row.
What caused the huge swing of momentum on the World Cup? The tens of thousands of German fans filling the stadium and lining the Oberhof trails might have had something to do with it. German after German described the buoyancy they felt thanks to the cheers of the crowd.
Still, those fans weren’t necessarily expecting Birnbacher to be the hero for the home country; the 30-year-old had only won two World Cup races before Sunday. A better bet would have been Arnd Peiffer, who had stolen the sprint victory from France’s Simon Fourcade the day before.
While Peiffer had demonstrated that he was in top form, Birnbacher had not. In fact, even Birnbacher himself was surprised that he raced so well. He told the German newspaper Zeit that he felt “really bad” on Sunday, and didn’t understand exactly why he had been so fast.
“I was pretty tired after the travel and competition in Schalke,” he said in a postrace press conference, referring to the city biathlon competition held over the Christmas break. “I was still tired in the sprint, so it was amazing that I did so well today.”
The race started at an easy pace, and 19 of the 30 men cleaned the initial prone stage. Without any attacks on the second loop, the group came into the range together and took to the shooting mats again. This time, only eight men remained clean, and the pack got even smaller as several of them picked up the pace.
Birnbacher was seen at the front for the first time, along with Peiffer, Lowell Bailey of the U.S., Klemen Bauer of Slovenia, and Benjamin Weger of Switzerland. And as they raised the pace, things began to go wrong – one of the Germans lost a basket on his pole, while behind them, Christoph Sumann of Austria fell down and lost between 10 and 20 seconds.
“Skiing went pretty well for me, especially in the first three loops,” Bailey told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I felt fresh and I didn’t feel like I was going above my pace.”
For Bailey, though, along with Peiffer and Weger, skiing easily was not enough. The three men all missed shots when they returned to the range for the first standing stage. While Peiffer had just one penalty, and could conceivably have still remained in podium position, the stage was a disaster for Weger and Bailey, who picked up two and three penalties and completely removed themselves from contention.
That left only Birnbacher and Bauer. While the Slovenian is known as a fast skier, he struggled today. Bauer started off in the lead, but by the middle of the loop was slowing down in hopes that the German would take a turn at the front. Birnbacher, however, was not interested in leading, and instead pushed at Bauer’s poles – even on the flat – when he began to come too close.
And while the pair played with tactics, behind them, another duo was pushing the pace. Simon Fourcade of France and Anton Shipulin of Russia appeared to be redlining in an attempt to catch the leaders; they came within 13 seconds at one point.
Back at the front, Bauer was left to lead the entire loop, and based on the grimaces on his face, it was clear that the final shooting stage was going to be a challenge. While Birnbacher cleaned quickly and efficiently, the exhausted Slovenian missed three shots and resigned himself to the penalty loop.
That left a clean-shooting Birnbacher to head out on his own, followed by Fourcade and then a steady stream of other racers. Try as he might, Fourcade was unable to close the gap, but he did lock down second place for himself.
Birnbacher seemed to be laid-back about his performance, explaining that the victory would help him race better going forward.
“Having the wins is good for my confidence, but puts no pressure on me,” he said.
For Fourcade, second place was just another step towards an eventual win.
“Today, it did not bother me [to miss a shot] because I know my shape is good,” Fourcade said in a press conference, explaining that he had a penalty in Hochfilzen and still ended up on the podium. “I just went on and finished second. Now even though I have three podiums in the past three competitions, I am still taking them one competition at a time. I still do not have any wins like [my brother] Martin, and I hope to get one to be even with him.”
The most impressive finishing lap was surely turned in by Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway, who had three penalties over the course of the race and was as far back as 23rd, over a minute behind the leaders, after the third shooting stage. But Svendsen turned in the fastest time on each of his last two laps, cleaned the final stage, and shot by most of the field to snag the final spot on the podium.
While he ended up in his usual spot, Svendsen said in a press conference that there were several reasons for his lackluster performance. First of all, he doesn’t like Oberhof.
“Oberhof has never been such a good place for me,” he said. “I have won at almost every venue but never in Oberhof… I am lacking a bit of confidence on the shooting range. I do not feel comfortable and I have some work to do to get it back.”
Secondly, he said, he’s lost without his teammates Tarjei Bø and Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who sat out this weekend of racing.
“Those guys will be back and be strong,” he said. “I am eager to have them back because when all of us are together, I feed off of them, and I think I perform better.”
After his disastrous third shooting stage, Bailey, the lone American, struggled on his skis, perhaps because he had spent too much time on the penalty loop.
“I lost a fair amount on the fourth lap,” he told FasterSkier. “Not sure what happened, but I hit the Bergsteig (first big hill) and had nothing left in my legs. But I was able to make it through and not lose too much time.”
After cleaning the final stage, he was able to catch a ride with Lars Berger of Norway.
“I felt like I came back a little on the fifth loop to hold of the group that Lars was leading behind me,” Bailey said.
“Overall, I’m happy with the result and looking forward to the races in Nove Mesto this week!”