Heavy fog in Oberhof, Germany, on Thursday pushed back the start of the IBU World Cup 4 x 7.5 k relay, and then obscured both the targets and the race course as the world’s top male biathletes battled their way through the race. But even a delay, tough conditions, and a 57 second deficit going into the final leg couldn’t keep the Russian team of Evgeniy Garanichev, Timofey Lapshin, Dmitry Malyshko, and Anton Shipulin from gold.
It was Shipulin who did the hero’s work for Russia. He skied the fastest course time of all the anchor-leg skiers, and also turned in remarkable shooting – just one spare round over the two shooting stages combined. On the final loop, he closed a ten-second gap to Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen, then passed him, accelerated up the final hill, and celebrated as he crossed the line with a two-second win.
“Everything was good today, shooting and running, and so I am so happy that we won,” Shipulin said in a press conference.
Strong winds, dense fog, and slushy snow made both skiing and shooting a challenge. Even with three spare shooting rounds available in each shooting bout – a luxury available only in relays – just two of twenty-four nations escaped the day without penalty loops. As wind battered their race bibs and they squinted to see targets, the men missed almost more targets than they hit. Russia’s 12 spares set a new low for shooting by a winning team – and yet represented remarkable accuracy, given the conditions.
“Every one of us had some problem or other on the shooting range, but we struggled to victory,” Malyshko said through a translator at the post-race press conference.
All teams in the top six saw at least one trip to the penalty loop. The three medal winners, Russia, Norway, and France had one-a-peace; Germany and Ukraine each had two; in six Switzerland had six penalties.
Athletes struggled on the ski trails as well; Ukraine, Canada, Poland and Finland are just a few of the dozen nations that had crashed during the race.
“Marco [Bedard] fell but he is OK,” Canadian National Team Coach Roddy Ward wrote in an e-mail. “No broken equipment either. The conditions on the downhills were very tricky. There were a lot of falls!”
The Czech Republic team, whose women claimed the win in Wednesday’s 4 x 6 k relay, was forced to withdraw before completing their first leg after a major crash by Michal Krcmar.
“We actually thought the race was going to cancelled until about 5 minutes before the start.” Nathan Smith told FasterSkier in an email.
Another athlete took a wrong turn at a trail intersection because visibility was so bad.
Even Sweden was disqualified for using four spares in one bout of shooting, one more than the allowed three extra rounds.
And then there was the rainy snow, something like being in a cloud.
“The main challenge today was not to get cold,” Lapshin said in a post-race press conference. Biathletes have a word for this weather: “Oberhofing”.
“Today it was a very hard competition,” Jean Guillaume Beatrix of France said. “Every year it is the same in Oberhof, conditions for warriors. We just try to be as strong as possible.”
Lead Changes and Errors
The opening leg already saw Russia, Latvia, and France beginning to take advantage of tough shooting conditions by slightly getting away from the rest of the field for the first transition. The French team was ager to prove their abilities without the participation of French superstar Martin Fourcade. His brother Simon said in the press conference, “Jean Guillaume [Beatrix, a teammate] has a good joke about this, the women had a podium yesterday without Martin, so why not us?”
The second 7.5 k leg of the race was the point that brought Norway into striking distance of Russia and France. The experienced Alexander Os brought solid shooting in the windy range, putting Norway less than 10 seconds off the lead pack. He is one of several men vying to complete Norway’s roster for World Championships, and was happy with his effort: “I am satisfied,” he said in the press conference.
Germany was fourth and Canada, boosted by Nathan Smith, fifth before the second exchange. But on the third leg it looked like Norway had run away with the race. Johannes Thingnes Bø easily closed the gap to France and Russia, then clean prone shooting put him eighteen seconds ahead of Russia and twenty-seven ahead of France.
While all three leaders had a trip to the penalty loop after the standing shooting i, Bø made it to the exchange fifty seven second ahead of the chasing Russian Malyshko.
Bjørndalen has claimed nine individual World Cup victories in Oberhof and with nearly a minute advantage on Shipulin was in the ideal position. But it wasn’t going to happen: Shipulin, who had excellent individual result before the holiday break, could not be beaten. The Russian closed nearly twenty seconds in the first loop and twenty-five in the second. And then Bjørndalen didn’t help himself by using all three spare rounds in standing.
Still with a nine second deficit on the final lap Shipulin sprinted past Bjoerndalen to cross the line in the winning time of 1:15:24.1, 2 seconds ahead of Norway.
“I wasn’t completely safe about whether I would catch him, it wasn’t 100% certain,” Shipulin said in the press conference. “I knew that Ole Einar has very strong efforts. So I just tried to get him. I did everything I could.”
Bjørndalen didn’t appear to be in his best form, although Shipulin’s speed was enough to make anyone look weak in comparison.
“It was hard on standing,” Bjørndalen admitted to Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “It was difficult conditions, and I had to work madly to get away without a penalty lap. In the track today was not good either…. Shipulin was so good today, and I felt tired.”
Bø said that blame for Norway’s loss should not fall on Bjørndalen, even though as the anchor his face was attached to it.
“It’s easy to be the scapegoat when you go last, but the entire race goes from A to B,” he told NRK. “I’m not proud of my penalty loop… my leg could have been half a minute better, and then we would have won by half a minute.”
France finished 1:32 off the pace, having passed Germany while Simon Schempp was in the penalty loop. Germany would finish fourth 2:43.7 back. Quentin Fillon Maillet, France’s anchor, joined his team and they immediately grabbed a “Je Suis Charlie” sign in support of the victims of the recent terrorist attack at a Paris newspaper office.
Ukraine and Switzerland rounded out the top six finishing 4:08.5 and 4:27.9 respectively behind the Russian team. Due to the range conditions, which saw many spares and penalty loops but also slow and deliberate shooting to try to overcome low visibility, only ten teams escaped without being lapped.
Eighth Place for Canadian Men
The Canadian men continued their relay success this season, clutching the 8th place finish when Macx Davies edged out Finland lunging for the line. Davies and Christian Gow made their World Cup circuit debut for this year in Wednesdays relay. Much of Canada’s usual World Cup squad is taking extra time to train and relax at home and skipping the Oberhof World Cup – Nathan Smith is there only to defend a top-25 Total Score ranking – and the IBU Cup squad was given the chance to race in their place, hence the newcomers to the scene.
“Based on training and racing to date, I think Christian and Macx were confident coming into Oberhof,” Ward wrote. “However, I think it was good for Christian to brush shoulders with the big boys and see that he can hold his own. Macx had a great last lap and skied away from a few teams for 8th, that should help his confidence too. They both have the potential to put together a good result in the Sprint.”
Gow is not usually a scramble-leg skier, but based on his performance in training and recent racing, the team and staff picked him to lead off.
“I felt a bit more pressure than normal the last couple of days, mainly because I have never started a relay or a World Cup,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The idea of doing both of those things on the same day at the most crowded spectator venue was definitely a bit nerve-wracking. ”
Gow was steady on the range in opening up for Canada, losing only fifty-six seconds to the leaders and passing off to veteran Nathan Smith.
“He did quite well,” Ward said in a phone interview. “It was very, very hard conditions, but he definitely held his own. He shot pretty well, given the day, and tagged off pretty close to the leaders.”
Smith moved into sixth place before finishing his leg, turning in what Ward called a “solid leg.”
Marc Andre Bedard took over from Smith; a crash on his first lap for Bedard stole his speed leading into the big downhill of the course.
Bedard took one trip to the penalty loop after his standing shooting. Davies final shooting resulted in two more penalties for Canada but a strong attack on the last lap moved Davies up from 10th to 8th at the finish. In doing so, Canada improved their Nations Cup ranking.
“We have quite a few strong guys, so I thought that this result was possible,” Ward said. “8th place today shows our men’s team has some good depth. It’s good to see our younger athletes make the jump to the highest level. Hopefully this means we are doing a good job at developing these guys and girls.”
-Chelsea Little contributed reporting.