Simon Schempp may have won yesterday’s sprint, but that didn’t mean his path to a World Cup pursuit victory in Antholz, Italy, today was particularly easy.
First, there was the awkward fact that Schempp shared the pursuit in with Lukas Hofer of Italy after a timing adjustment left them with a perfect tie in the individual-start race.
Then, there was the fact that both biathletes missed a shot or two in the first prone stage of the 12.5 k pursuit. Hofer missed two, dropping to fourth, and Schempp one, leaving him skiing for second place with Dominik Landertinger of Austria.
In front? Another German, Arnd Peiffer, who was hoping to turn his season and career around with a victory heading into the Olympics. Once considered Germany’s next freat biathlete after winning the World Championships sprint in 2011 at the age of 23, Peiffer hadn’t notched a victory in two years.
But by the second stage, Peiffer missed and Schempp was back in the lead. Then in the third stage Schempp missed and dropped to second, ten seconds behind Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France.
It was an up and down race for Schempp, but when he entered the range the final time, he was in a pack of five skiers about ten seconds down on Beatrix. The Frenchman missed a shot, while Schempp, Krasimir Anev of Bulgaria, and Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway all cleaned. Schempp had a seven-second lead on Anev, with Beatrix completing his penalty loop and moving into fourth, just ten seconds behind Schempp.
On the trails, things quickly got complicated. Schempp galloped up the hills, trying to hold off the oncoming hoarde; fans shouted “Bjørndalen! Bjørndalen!” in thick Italian accents. The Norwegian veteran quickly left Anev behind. But Beatrix was on his tail, as was Henrik L’Abee-Lund, a younger Norwegian teammate who soon overtook both the flagging Bulgarian as well as Beatrix.
On one downhill, Shempp looked over his shoulder, a look of concern over his face. Fog was rolling in on the Antholz course, and he wasn’t sure if he would get caught.
“I really was only able to enjoy the last 10 meters,” Schempp said after securing a 1.5-second victory. “There are a lot of athletes who can get a medal; everything has to be perfect in both disciplines for this to happen.”
On the final uphill into the stadium, Beatrix pulled in front of the Norwegians, but he still had a few hundred meters to go. He managed to cross the line in second, also raising a celebratory fist in the air; L’Abee-Lund was third, and made the same gesture.
It was the first podium for Beatrix, who has twice placed fourth.
“I was not confident on last loop,” he said in the post-race press conference. “I just wanted to save some energy for the stadium and then try. Until the end of the lap I never thought I would be second… I am very happy. I have been waiting for my day. I always knew it was possible but I was never strong in both disciplines on the same day.”
For L’Abee-Lund, it was just the second podium of his career. The first came last season, and the 25-year-old hoped to make the Norwegian Olympic team. But this was a bittersweet day to have his best performance of the season, because Norway recently named its team and L’Abee-Lund isn’t on it.
“I will be at home watching the Olympics on television,” he said in a press conference.
Norway’s two best biathletes, Emil Hegle Svendsen and Tarjei Bø, did not race this weekend as they do an altitude training camp in Switzerland instead to prepare for the upcoming Games.
Martin Fourcade, the French winner of last year’s World Cup and a favorite today, caught his older brother Simon in the finishing stretch and sprinted past him for ninth place.
Fourcade has seemed off this season, notching a few huge victories but seemingly tactically scattered in many appearances. Today, his skiing looked strange, as he approached each loop somewhat like a sprint race, throwing in huge tempo surges even on the first loop. On the range, he missed one shot in each stage – by far not his worst shooting peformance this year.
The French seemingly have more and more athletes who can fill in around him: Quentin Fillon Maillet, who competed at World Junior Championships just last season, had the best result of his career, moving from 32nd all the way up to 14th with a single shooting penalty.
Lowell Bailey moved from 19th up to 12th with only two penalties, just one in each shooting stage. Despite a top-20 performance in the sprint, he had been far from happy with his shooting performance that day and vowed to turn things around.
“I was pretty upset with myself about the last shooting in Friday’s race because I know it was not even close to the way I want to be shooting,” Bailey said of the sprint, where he missed two shots in standing and let out a yell of frustration. “It was slow and indecisive. Today was the opposite.”
He still missed a shot in each standing stage, but was relatively happy with how things played out.
“By the last standing shooting I was within about 30 seconds of the podium and with clean shooting would have been fighting for the top three,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I had a game plan to be aggressive and attack on the course but especially in the range and I feel good about how the race went based on that… I’m happy with the shooting performance even though another hit would have been pretty exciting. I’ll just have to hit that target next time!”
For Canada, Brendan Green slipped from 8th to 18th with four penalties, and Nathan Smith from 22nd to 26th with three penalties.
Russell Currier of the United States started 60th, the last man to qualify for the pursuit, and finished 47th, although 10 men did not start.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.