In just his 12th career World Cup start, and on hallowed Norwegian snow, 23-year-old Russian Evgeniy Garanichev accomplished a feat many spend a career chasing.
With clean shooting and fast skiing, Garanichev captured his first World Cup victory, bettering his second place two weeks ago in Antholz, Italy.
With rare midwinter conditions gracing the World Cup for a change, skiing was fast, and shooting would be key in the 10km sprint event at the famed Holmenkollen ski stadium above the Norwegian capital of Oslo.
Garanichev, starting early at bib 7 would mainly be getting back-splits throughout the individual start event, but with Emil Hegle Svendsen (NOR) and teammate Evgeny Ustyugov out ahead, he did have some information to work with.
Svendsen led the race after the first of two shooting stages, holding a 4.9 second lead on Garanichev, with Arnd Peiffer (GER) in third. And while over seven kilometers of skiing remained, not to mention another trip to the range, this trio would ultimately make up the final podium.
The Norwegian faltered in standing, missing two shots, and dropped out of contention for the win, but Peiffer and Garanichev remained flawless with the rifle, and the race came down to the last lap of skiing.
The Russian knew he bested Svendsen when he crossed the line, but had to wait to see how the German fared over the last kilometers. Nail-biting was in order as Peiffer knocked seconds off the lead at every time check.
A 6.2 second gap with 1.6 kilometers evaporated and the race clock ticked the seconds away as Peiffer hammered home the final 100 meters, ultimately crossing a mere .7 seconds behind Garanichev.
Celebrations had to wait as most of the field of 89 remained on course, but splits soon confirmed that the race was decided.
Peiffer was not disappointed in the least with his performance. Earlier this season the 25-year-old won this same event in Oberhof, Germany by a similar margin (1.1 seconds to be exact) over Simon Fourcade (FRA).
“One time you are in front, and one time you are in back, so it is ok,” Peiffer said with a laugh after the race.
“I had a good performance on the track, especially on the last lap, so I am very satisfied with this race,” Peiffer said, adding that while he knew he was in second after the final shooting, he didn’t know who was ahead and who chased from behind.
“I had no time for thinking today on the track…there was not so much information. I just had to ski a good last lap,” he said.
Svendsen, along with Martin Fourcade (FRA), was just one of two men to crack the top-18 while missing more than one shot.
After the Norwegian team struggled in the previous World Cup stop in Italy, Svendsen said it was important to be on the podium on home snow.
Teammate Ole Einar Bjorndalen was 5th with one miss, but defending World Cup champion Tarje Boe struggled to 28th with three penalties.
Svendsen was fastest on skis, with Fourcade, not surprisingly second, overcoming three misses to place 10th.
US and Canada Pack Top-30
After the US and Canadian women combined to place all five starters in the top-35, the men had their work cut out for them to match that performance.
They not only matched, they upped the ante, making February 2, 2012 a day for the ages for North American Biathlon.
At the end of the races all eleven starters, six Canadians and five Americans, ended in the top-35, led by Lowell Bailey (USA) in 8th and Brendan Green (CAN) in 9th.
Bailey continued his breakthrough season, posting his second-best career result (behind only a 5th earlier this season) on the strength of the ninth fastest ski time and a single penalty in standing.
Ranked 16th in the World Cup standings, Bailey wrote to FasterSkier in an email that his main goal for the season was to stay consistent.
“In the past, I have had good results, but they have been sporadic throughout the previous seasons,” Bailey said. “It was great to start out on a positive note with the races in Oestersund, [Sweden, where he was 5th] and I think that helped me to believe that I could compete with the best guys every week going forward.”
Coming off what counts as an extended break on the World Cup, all of ten days, Bailey felt ready to go.
The US team remained in Antholz, Italy following the previous World Cup, where, according to Bailey, they could ski to training every day.
“It was just the right amount of relaxation time away from the World Cup and focused training that we needed going into the next couple weeks of competitions,” he said.
Green was just 3.9 seconds behind Bailey, though the Canadian shot clean. The ninth place finish was a career-best, and he climbed to 32nd in the overall standings.
Five of his best World Cup finishes have come this season, including the top two.
Tim Burke (USA) was the next North American on the results sheet, taking one penalty on his way to 15th.
His 22nd fastest ski time was nothing to scoff at, but Burke wrote in an email that it could have been better.
“I was happy to finally have a solid shooting race and my skiing felt good,” Burke wrote. “Unfortunately, I made a really bad choice in skis and this definitely cost me.”
He plans to test extensively tomorrow in preparation for the remaining races in Oslo over the weekend.
More importantly, Burke said he felt surprisingly good after the training block at altitude in Italy.
He expects to feel even better over the next few days, saying “It always seems to take me one or two hard efforts after coming down from altitude before I feel good again.”
2012 has been a bit of a rollercoaster for Burke, who has struggled to find the form that made him a regular in the top-10 in 2010.
But with five consecutive races in the top-20, including a season-best 11th, Burke appears to be hitting his stride.
Over the past several week Burke told FasterSkier that he has been working on improving his standing shooting, doing so in an unorthodox way.
“It might sound funny but to improve my shooting I have actually spent less time working on it over the last few weeks,” Burke said.
“I am the type of person who normally works on every little detail in shooting, but I have found that sometimes this can be a bit much during the season,” he said. “I am trying to take a more relaxed approach to shooting now and I am hopeful that this will pay off.”
While they may have been overshadowed somewhat by their teammates, Jean Phillipe LeGuellec (CAN) in 20th, Jay Hakkinen (USA) in 24th and Scott Perras (CAN) in 27th all had strong days as well.
LeGuellec, whose best result this season was an 8th in Hochfilzen, Austria, had two penalties in prone, and had significant ground to make up.
After spending nearly a minute on the penalty loop, he headed back out on course in 72nd place, but skied fast and shot quickly and clean in standing.
His range time was the 9th best the second time through, and he ended the day with the 12th fastest ski.
Hakkinen cracked the top-30 for the seventh time in thirteen starts this season, missing a single target in prone. The 14-year veteran of the World Cup is 34th in the overall, and could beat his personal best of 33rd set back in 2005.
The final Canadian in the race, Perras, told FasterSkier “I felt pretty rough out there today, it didn’t feel very natural.”
He pointed to a possible stomach bug as the culprit, and given how heavy his legs felt during his warm-up, the day was “definitely a pleasant surprise.”
It bodes well for Perras that he felt poorly and still managed to post a career-best World Cup result, topping the 29th he picked up in Italy.
He ended the day with a single penalty in standing, and was reserved about his race overall.
“I wouldn’t say I am surprised, I am momentarily satisfied,” Perras said. “Today I made some mistakes and if I could clear those up I would be looking at a much more exciting result.”
The Canadian team has shown a depth and more recently, a consistency that has been lacking in recent years.
“We definitely feed off each other,” Perras said. “When we all do well it creates a good atmosphere—we are competitive with each other but it’s almost in a playful way. There is one thing we all want, a good Olympic Quota and Nations Cup standing, and we realize we really need each other for this.”
All six men are qualified to start the 12.5km pursuit on Saturday.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.