Clean shooting just doesn’t cut it. Ask anyone on the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup circuit: ask Friday’s runner-up, Dominik Landertinger of Austria, ask Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, who finished third in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
Ask Frenchman Martin Fourcade, who placed fourth and was the only one in the top nine that didn’t clean. And be sure to ask American Lowell Bailey, who hit all his targets and put together one of his best races all season to finish 16th.
“You always want to be up there fighting for a podium when you clean,” Bailey said on the phone Friday after shooting 100 percent and finishing 54.3 seconds behind sprint winner Anton Shipulin of Russia, who also cleaned.
“I’m just not there yet on the skis there this season,” Bailey added. “… The most important thing is shooting accurately and then you get the speed, and hopefully you get both of those things.”
That’s precisely what Shipulin possessed en route to his sixth World Cup win and second podium this season. All of the top-three men cleaned, but the Russian posted the fastest range and second-fastest course times, which made him untouchable on Friday.
Only Fourcade was faster. But the overall World Cup leader missed one standing on a sunny and relatively calm day in Pokljuka. That cost him.
After entering the range in fourth, 6.8 seconds behind Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø, Shipulin and Landertinger, respectively, Fourcade missed one to slip to seventh, 29 seconds back.
For Bø, who had cleaned prone just like Shipulin, Landertinger, Fourcade, and France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix in fifth before the second stage, it was worse. Bø missed two and fell 38 seconds behind Shipulin, who took the lead. Beatrix had two standing penalties as well to drop from 10 seconds behind to 48 seconds off the pace.
Germany’s Simon Schempp, who started eighth behind Fourcade in bib 6 and Shipulin in bib 7, held strong in second after two clean stages, 21.7 seconds behind Shipulin. Landertinger, who started behind him in bib 16 and Svendsen, who started 12th, and much later on, Russia’s Evegeniy Garanichev in bib 71, collectively bumped Schempp to fifth after two stages.
That’s where Fourcade kicked it in with one 3.3 k loop to go, rising from seventh to fourth at the finish. But Shipulin was even faster on the last loop, nearly catching Fourcade at the finish line after starting 30 seconds behind him.
At the finish, Shipulin posted the fastest time by nearly 30 seconds. Landertinger was charging, skiing up to second, 7.4 seconds back, after standing, and so was Svendsen, who clocked in second at the finish, 24 seconds behind.
Landertinger pushed hard through the final stretch, but came up 11.9 seconds short. The Austrian looked at the TV cameras and gave a thumbs up. He had done his best; Shipulin was simply faster.
“This is a special moment for me; my shape the early part of season was not so good,” Shipulin told the IBU after the race, which he won in 23:18.6. “I waited a long time for this win … this is a very important step for me. This was my first clean shooting and a confirmation of my good shape.”
Venues like Pokljuka and Antholz, Italy, suited him, he explained, “because I always feel good in these mountain places.”
Landertinger was as pleased as he looked on TV as well.
“I had good results last week in Hochfilzen, but just missed the podium, so today is a big step for me,” he told the IBU.
Svendsen finished 24.1 seconds back in third, ahead of Fourcade (+29.9) in fourth. Garanichev ultimately led a string of clean shooters in fifth (+34.1), with Schempp in sixth (+36.3), Norway’s Tarjei Bø in seventh (+38.1), France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet, who had a career-best eighth (+41.6), and Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov, who scored his second-ever top 10 in ninth (+42.6).
Johannes Thingnes Bø was 10th with an two misses to break up the clean-shooters list, and Beatrix ended up 14th with the same amount of penalties.
Then there was Italy’s Lukas Hofer in 15th, who cleaned and finished 53.9 second behind Shipulin. Bailey was another 0.4 seconds back in 16th. Beatrix, Hofer and Bailey will all start together, 54 seconds behind Shipulin in Saturday’s 12.5 k pursuit.
“That’ll be an exciting first lap,” Bailey anticipated. “It’s all about shooting tomorrow especially on this course. I think you can really get benefit from getting in a train of skiers because there’s a lot of fast, rolling sections so if you’re skiing behind that can be an advantage.”
On Friday, Bailey confirmed that he had made gains already this season, despite planning to build gradually throughout the next couple months. After initially finishing 12th, he recalled feeling satisfied with his race, but not ecstatic.
Bailey in bib 42 was quickly bounced by Hofer, who started a minute behind him, and Germany’s Daniel Boem, who started 30 seconds after Bailey and placed 13th. Two Russians —Tsvetkov and Garanichev — ultimately put Bailey in 16th.
“I’m happy with how the shooting’s gone,” Bailey said. “I’ve changed somethings around with my shooting in the training season and I’m happy that those seem to be working out already.”
Specifically, Bailey said he and his US Biathlon teammates incorporated more head-to-head shooting in their workouts. That helped mimic high-pressure scenarios with distractions, and while he acknowledged, “there’s no better training than a race,” that kind of exercise helped.
Bailey also worked on improving his efficiency and reducing the amount of time between stepping on that mat to taking his first shot. Prone felt a little delayed on Friday, “but standing felt good. I felt like that was a solid fast stage,” he said.
What he was most perplexed with was where he lost time — and why.
“I think the biggest, sort of confusing thing I could say today was that I actually had a decent ski time,” he said. “I probably had the best ski time I’ve had all year, but I lost a lot of time by the first 2.6 k split so I’m going to have to go back and see if theres anything I can change about that going forward into the next race. But the pursuit is about getting in a group and skiing strong.”
He’ll start ahead of teammate Tim Burke, who finished 26th (+1:20.7) with two standing misses.
“Popluka has been a great place for me in the past and I feel the course really suits my strengths,” Burke wrote in an email. Last year, he placed fourth in the sprint and third in the mass start at the same venue.
“I felt solid warming up, but right from the start of the race today I just felt a little flat,” he added. “After cleaning prone, I thought I could still manage a solid result but the two penalties in standing really set me back. I have struggled so far this season to put together consecutive good shooting stages and that was again the case today.”
Burke posted the 16th-fastest course time, 37 seconds back from Shipulin. His range time ranked 19th-fastest overall.
“I don’t plan on making any changes, I will continue to attack each race and sooner or later everything will come together,” he added.
Burke will start the pursuit 1:21 back with Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger, and five seconds behind Canada’s Nathan Smith, who placed 25th (+1:16.4) with a single prone penalty on Friday.
Smith Top Canadian in 25th
Smith started second and initially fell off the pace with one miss. After his standing stage, his time trailed Shipulin’s by 55 seconds.
“The prone miss was a split. It didn’t feel bad but I may have not quite fully moved over to the next target,” Smith explained. “Standing was a battle today but I was diligent in not throwing away any shots and fighting for each one.”
As the first starter in the first race of the Olympics last winter, starting second didn’t bother him.
“My big goal this weekend is to make it into the mass start,” he wrote. “In order to do that I will have to bang out two solid races. That means at least 90% and good skiing.”
With the third-fastest range time overall, he had to have been pleased with his shooting, but Smith explained his skiing lacked aggressiveness.
“I’m satisfied with today’s race. It wasn’t amazing, but not terrible either,” he wrote. ‘It puts me in a good spot to fight in the pursuit tomorrow for a mass start spot.”
Smith’s Biathlon Canada teammate Brendan Green also qualified for the pursuit in 34th, and he’ll start 1:35 after Shipulin. On Friday, Green cleaned prone, missed one standing and skied the 10th-fastest last lap to finish in the top 40.
“Heading into today my goal was to finish in the top 30,” Green wrote in an email. “I was able to put together my best ski performance this season with my best Sprint shooting so far this season and the result was close to where I wanted to be today.”
Prone proved challenging: “I had to really work to hit my targets and even reset a couple of times,” he explained. “I was able to shoot clean prone but it was very slow and that cost me quite a bit of time at the end of the day. With better shooting speed today a top 30 was absolutely possible.”
He started off slower, sitting in 59th after prone and 54th after standing, but Green was pleased to pick up speed throughout the three-lap race, especially on the last loop.
“I’m hoping I’ll be able to take my form into tomorrow and chase a top 30 result or better in the Pursuit,” he added. “… Today was an improvement and I’m content with that for now, but there is still a lot of work to be done before I’ll be performing at my expectations. It’s good to know where my form is at the moment, and it will be beneficial to have time [at home] over Christmas to address and fine tune some aspects of my performances from my season thus far.”
American Leif Nordgren made the top-60 pursuit cutoff in 53rd with one standing miss, and will start 1:56 behind the leader on Saturday.
“My goal is always top 40, today was no different,” Nordgren explained. “I’m not super happy with my ski shape right now, so I know I have to shoot well to get into the top 40. Today that was a fine line.
“This is one of the tightest pursuits I think I’ve ever seen,” he added. Nordgren will start at the same time as France’s Florent Claude and Switzerland’s Serafin Wiestner.
“But it’s nice to know tomorrow that good shooting can make an even bigger difference than normal with everyone being so closely packed!”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.