After over an hour and a quarter of competition, in the end today’s men’s World Cup relay in Oslo, Norway, came down to a boot length.
The German team had been near the lead throughout the 4 x 7.5 k competition, thanks to an impressive leadoff leg by Erik Lesser, who cleaned all ten targets in the fastest time of all competitors and attacked on the final loop. Andi Birnbacher kept the team in third, within three seconds of the lead, and Arnd Peiffer – who won Saturday’s sprint – skied his way to the front despite three spare rounds.
That left the responsibility of the final win to Simon Schempp, who had been on fire earlier in the season with wins in Ruhpolding, Germany, and Antholz, Italy.
But he faced a formidable opponent: Anton Shipulin of Russia, who has two wins this season, sits third in the World Cup total score, and is a nearly-unstoppable relay anchor.
Taking the tag in third, Shipulin made up 23 seconds on Schempp by the time the first shooting was over, having cleaned while Schempp used one spare. He then came into standing just behind Schempp.
Schempp faltered, using a spare in standing and taking a long time to do it. Shipulin came to the mats while Schempp was still shooting, and cleaned. The pair left the range separated by less than a half a second.
And from there, it became a cat and mouse game. Each skied slowly over the final loop, willing the other to dare to take the lead. In the end, Shipulin ended up leading up the final long uphill – but he wasn’t moving too fast. On the downhill into the stadium, the pace picked up a bit, but it still seemed conservative.
The finish in Oslo climbs a short, steep hill, then traverses behind the shooting range before dipping back into the stadium proper and following the side of the grandstands to the finish line. On that uphill, Schempp put in a sudden surge and sprinted his way to the top. He crowded Shipulin out around the corner and led across the top.
But if this was his grand plan, he had forgotten about downhills, as well as Shipulin’s sprinting speed. In Schempp’s draft, Shipulin gained momentum down the short hill, then in the finishing lanes drew even and finally lunged at the line to win by 0.2 seconds.
“For the whole race, I was wondering whether to take risks,” Shipulin said through a translator in an interview with the IBU’s Jerry Kokesh. “To put everything on the table. Or to be a bit more cautious. So at the beginning of the leg I took a few more risks on the skis and on the shooting. It all worked out. I’m happy that I made no mistakes and we finished first.”
It was the second relay win for Russia so far this season, and Shipulin’s experience and confidence definitely helped the team to their Oslo victory.
“It’s always difficult to analyze the situation, because the finish here is not straightforward,” Shipulin said. “You get a lot of speed from the hill. It doesn’t depend on your strength because the momentum is carrying you. But I knew in the last ten meters that I needed to turn on my muscle power. And with this, I should win.”
Austria placed third, +50.9, the Czech Republic fourth, +1:29.1, and Canada fifth, +1:35.8.
Stay tuned for a full report on the Canadian finish, which was the best ever in the program’s history.
The United States did not field a team, as they only brought three men to Oslo.
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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.