KONTIOLAHTI, Finland – It was only a matter of time before Erik Lesser climbed to the top of the podium. The German biathlete was close in the past past – in 2014 he earned two Olympic silvers in the individual and relay events and has frequented the IBU World Cup podium four previous times.
Lesser will no longer lack gold in his trophy case after Sunday’s 12.5 k pursuit at the 2015 IBU World Championships where he skied and shot to a time of 30:47.9. He was joined on the podium by Anton Shipulin of Russia, who finished 17.0 seconds back. Tarjei Bø placed third, 18.7 seconds behind.
The day began with Tarjei Bø’s brother Johannes Bø in bib 1. The Norwegian had a 12 second advantage over second place starter, Canada’s Nathan Smith, after winning Saturday’s 10 k sprint. Just behind them was Tarjei Bø, who began the race 25 seconds behind his brother.
The three biathletes skied the 2.5 k course alone for the first lap and entered the stadium hoping to clean the first prone stage and hold their time advantage. Johannes Bø and Smith both missed two to take them out of the lead, while Tarjei Bø cleaned to remain in the running.
Tarjei Bø wasn’t the first skier to exit the stadium, however. Instead it was Simon Fourcade of France followed by Lesser. The Frenchman and the German started in bibs 4 and 5, and each began 30 seconds back from the leader. They overcame the deficit with quick shooting and strong skiing in the first loop.
Joining them to create a lead pack was Simon Fourcade’s brother and IBU World Cup overall leader Martin Fourcade, who shot clean in his first prone to make contact. Trailing him was Tarjei Bø. After the second stage of prone, however, the group dropped Martin Fourcade after the French biathlete missed one.
Lesser created a large lead over the rest of the field after cleaning in the first standing stage. Both Tarjei Bø and Simon Fourcade missed one to give the German a 22 second lead.
Once Lesser cleaned the final stage of shooting and became the only competitor to clean all stages, it was clear he had secured the win. As he entered the stadium he crossed his arms above his head to make a X, paying tribute to his region of Saxony. After the race, he said that the day was his first “perfect” day since racing on the IBU Cup circuit.
“In the World Cup it was my first perfect race,” he told reporters. “I did some perfect race in the IBU cup before… It was my first perfect race and especially at the World Champs, it’s really amazing.”
The German explained that he knew there was a potential for a podium going into Sunday’s sprint, but that due to the nature of the sport nothing was guaranteed.
“I know that I’m in good shape and I can work really good in the shooting range and also in the track, but I think nobody has really feeling for the victory because in biathlon anything can happen,” he explained. “Biathlon has it’s own rules and today it was a good day for me.”
The remaining podium positions weren’t as clear-cut as the German’s victory. Russian Anton Shipulin had risen from 18th position to third before the final shooting, and when second-ranked Tarjei Bø missed one shot, he exited the range within seconds of the Norwegian. The two skied together in the last lap until the final half-kilometer, where Shipulin maneuvered around Bø. Unable to respond, Bø trailed Shipulin across the line as the two finished second and third.
Although Shipulin started with bib 18 and 1:03 behind the first starter, he explained that he believed a podium was possible in the pursuit.
“Actually I thought about it before the race that I could fight today,” he said to the press. “Here in Kontiolahti the conditions are very hard but after the second shooting I saw that the competition was very close.”
As the top-ranked Russian at World Championships, Shipulin was the favorite of the many Russians in attendance in Kontiolahti. Despite his huge fan base, he said that he felt little pressure to medal. Shipulin’s silver is the first medal for Russia at the 2015 IBU World Championships.
“There was not a lot of pressure,” he said. “I know there were a lot of people who were expecting medals for our team. The relay is our favorite race, and we hope to get more medals in the future.”
Tarjei Bø’s bronze medal is his third of the Championships after he finished third in both the mixed relay and the 10 k sprint.
“[This is] far more than I expected,” the Norwegian said. “I’m full of confidence of course. My shooting has never been better. Today was tough to mobilize the energy to shoot good. I had to do a really good job to shoot the targets.”
Smith Leads North Americans in 13th
Although Smith started in second position, the two misses in his first shooting stage brought him down to 13th and over 30 seconds from the leaders. He fluctuated in the teens for the rest of the race as he missed one shot in each of the three subsequent stages.
“My shooting was a little off today. It was tough shooting and it was a little bit worse than it needed to be,” he said in a post race interview.
Smith explained that after his first two misses he still believed he could contend with the race’s leaders. However, with the subsequent misses in standing he said the race became a fight to maintain his position.
“I knew if I could shoot well in the rest of the race it could turn out really well, but I just did the best I could and then fought hard on the last lap to maintain my position,” he said.
Given his historic podium just a day earlier, Smith explained that he would have been happy with any result in the pursuit, and that he was especially pleased with 13th. “I thought to myself that I could have the worst race today and end up 60th, and it wouldn’t really matter,” he said. My biggest goal was yesterday. 13th was still a really good result so I’m happy with that.
According to the 29-year-old, the podium and its responsibilities, whether they be with the media or the awards ceremony, took a toll on his energy and provided valuable lessons for the future.
“It’s just a learning experience,” he explained. “Yesterday with all the media stuff and the prize ceremony, that was pretty taxing energy-wise and a distraction too obviously. Those guys are used to doing that practically every weekend so they can calm down right after.”
“I didn’t sleep very well last night,” he added, citing the continued excitement over his silver medal. “I probably slept like five hours so I was a little groggy this morning.”
Not far behind Smith was fellow Canadian Brendan Green, who advanced from 21st position to 16th after three rounds of clean shooting and one miss in his final standing stage. In the last loop Green could see Smith ahead of him and worked to keep his teammate in sight. Although he couldn’t catch Smith, he passed Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic to gain a position, but was ultimately overcome by Dominik Landertinger of Austria before the finish.
Green said he was pleased with the pursuit despite the steady drizzle of rain that fell on competitors throughout the entire day. He explained that his shooting was near the best of the season.
“I’m really pumped with the shooting today. It was again really challenging conditions with the wind but I was able to handle that really well and able to execute what was a very good race on the range. It was one of the better ones of the season,” he said.
The first American finisher in the 12.5 k pursuit was Tim Burke, who placed 20th. Burke began in bib 15 and shot clean in both prone stages to rise to sixth after the second shooting. He held the position throughout the third loop, but fell to 10th after missing two in the first stage of standing. He missed another two in the second stage to fall to 22nd, but passed two skiers in the last lap to earn his eventual position.
Burke entered Sunday’s pursuit with an aggressive mentality. He knew that to get into his goal of the top five he would need to take some risks. While the risks didn’t land him in the desired position, Burke said he didn’t regret his strategy.
“It was super windy, but I took every risk today. Both standings, I just went for it, really fast shooting. I didn’t care about getting a 10th place, I wanted a top five or it didn’t matter, so that’s what I went for,” he said in an interview. “It didn’t work out but I felt really good on the skis today. Definitely an improvement from the sprint so I’m looking forward to the next race.”
Prior to the 2014/2015 season, Burke was a usual in the top 20 and often cracked the top 10. This year, however, the American has struggled to reach his top form in shooting. According to Burke, Sunday’s pursuit was a step in the right direction.
“I feel like I’ve been in great shape all year and I feel like I still have that here. Just coming here and trying to gain my confidence again in the shooting again, I definitely lost that in the middle of the season. I’m feeling better now and it’s biathlon, anything can happen,” he said.
Much like Burke, teammate Lowell Bailey started his race with two clean prone stages. After the second shooting he was in 11th, but in the third round he missed four shots to bring the biathlete down to 35th place. He missed one more in the last shooting stage to ultimately finish 36th.
“I just got a little unlucky in the third stage and it was really windy but I figured I could hit more than one. It was over after that,” he said. “After that I just tried to stay in my own zone and ski my own race and try to salvage something out of it.”
In 45th was U.S. biathlete Sean Doherty, who overcame 10 positions after starting in bib 55. The decorated junior biathlete said that he began the race with the aim of improving his standing. He accomplished his goal after missing only three shots and cleaning the first standing stage.
“I was hoping to just shoot pretty well and move up a bunch,” he said. “We had good skis today and I just wanted to go for it. There’s a lot more room to move up than there is to move back on a day like today.”
In 51st was teammate Leif Nordgren who said that his result from the prior day’s sprint weighed heavily on the biathlete during the pursuit. Despite what he described as decent skiing, Nordgren said that he struggled in shooting. The American had a total of six misses.
“Today I’m still actually really bummed about yesterday’s race,” he said. “As much as I tried not to think about it over the night and think about this race, I still brought that into today which is not what you want to do in biathlon. This race today is a lot easier to forget so I think it will be easy to bounce back.”
Scott Gow of Canada finished one spot behind Nordgren in 52nd. Gow said he was hoping for more in the pursuit but was happy to be racing in Finland.
“This is my first pursuit this year so I think that was a little bit of a disadvantage for me,” he said. “I’m happy I was here. I’m happy to have raced. It wasn’t a total meltdown so I’m ready to go onto the next one.”
– Alex Kochon contributed reporting
Lander Karath is FasterSkier's Associate Editor from Bozeman, Montana and a Bridger Ski Foundation alumnus. Between his studies at Middlebury College in Vermont, he is an outdoor enthusiast and a political junkie.