The men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay at the IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria, was marked by frequent lead changes on Sunday, leaving the big question of which nation — out of several — would actually win.
At one point, US Biathlon’s Tim Burke was sitting in first place as his team’s second skier. But in the end, three of the “usual suspects” prevailed, with Russia catching up to and eventually overtaking Norway at the very end of the final lap. France claimed the third podium spot, and Canada and the U.S. finished sixth and eighth, respectively.
For Canada, sixth place stood as the second-best men’s relay finish since the same four skiers placed fifth at last season’s World Cup in Oslo, Norway. With Christian Gow, Nathan Smith, Scott Gow, and Brendan Green racing in the same order as they did in Oslo, the Canadians rose to sixth during the second half of Sunday’s race and ended up 21.3 seconds off the podium in Hochfilzen.
With a clean prone stage and one spare in standing, Christian Gow, 22, tagged Smith 25.7 seconds behind Latvia in first. The Latvians had been elevated by a flawless leg from their scramble skier, Andrejs Rastorgujevs. On the second leg, Lativa slipped to 23rd (and was ultimately lapped on the final leg), while Canada moved into seventh with Smith.
“It was a lot of fun to race and to be so close to the top of the field,” Christian wrote in an email. “I am happy with how well I held it together in the range and out on the course! It was an all round very good day for me.”
Smith explained that while his men’s team repeated its sixth-place result from last year’s Hochfilzen relay, the competition was a lot tighter on Sunday.
“It was a much more exciting race to be in, with constant changes,” he wrote.
“Each time I went into the range I could still see the leaders,” Smith added. “This might’ve led me to be overly aggressive in shooting as I knew a quick clean could get me up there. Unfortunately I didn’t have any of those…”
Smith needed all six spares — three for each shooting — but knocked down all his targets to avoid the penalty lap. He noted that “6 spares is a lot on this course. Ski times are so close that it really all came down to shooting accuracy and speed. The rest of the guys had phenomenal shooting, though. I’ll admit I was the one that didn’t race to my potential today.”
With the seventh-fastest course time, Smith overtook three teams to move the Canadians into seventh, 49.3 seconds back at the second exchange. From there, Scott Gow cleaned without needing any spares and also skied the seventh-fastest course time for his leg to put his team in sixth (+59.0) before the final leg.
“My goal today was to try and not rely on spares, and the end result was exactly what I wanted,” Scott, 25, wrote in an email. “My skiing felt good today and my shooting was perfect, so overall I’m very happy.”
Canada’s anchor leg, Greene used one spare in both prone and standing and posted the fifth-fastest course time of his leg to secure sixth. He was able to still overtake Sweden’s Jesper Nelin, while Germany’s Simon Schempp moved ahead of him.
“Austria has been great to us,” Green said with a laugh. “It’s hard to say what it is. I think right now momentum is building on the team with some good results early in the season. But I think as a team we are more confident now.
“The biggest thing for me is knowing if I don’t perform, one of the younger guys will, so that removes some pressure because the expectations for the team are not all on one athlete anymore,” Green added.
A 29-year-old team veteran, Green felt the pressure on the final leg after his teammates skied as high as fifth during the race.
“There was a lot of pressure out there on that last leg today but I’m happy with how I handled it,” Green said.
He considered the Gow brothers to be the difference-makers on Sunday, and Smith agreed.
“The Gows are a lot stronger this year skiing and can fight with the top teams now,” Smith wrote. “I think a relay medal is within reach if we can all lay down our best on the same day.”
After using nine spares, the Canadians ended up behind Russia in first, with Alexander Volkov, Evgeny Garanichev, Dimitry Malyshko, and Anton Shipulin winning in 1:11:40.8. Norway placed second, 3.1 seconds back, with Henrik L’Abee-Lund, Johannes Thingnes Bø, Tarjei Bø, and Emil Hegle Svendsen. France was more than a minute back in third (+1:01.9), and Austria finished fourth 9 seconds later. Germany placed fifth (+1:18.4), 4.8 seconds ahead of Canada.
According to Smith, sixth place wasn’t necessarily a surprise. The team ranked seventh in the relay based on last season’s results. At the same time, coming close to a team best was always a good thing.
“All of us put forward strong legs to get in to the top 6 and that is an accomplishment we are all proud of,” Christian wrote. “I am hoping that we can match or hopefully even improve upon our 5th place relay from last year. That will be a tall order to say the least, but today was a good sign that we are on the right track!”
“That was some high-pressured racing today. We are all pretty happy for sure,” Green told Biathlon Canada.
Canada’s head coach Matthias Ahrens said in a post-race interview with the IBU that he was pleased to outlast Sweden for sixth.
“It was a really exciting race. I mean when you look at how the position changed, and now at the end still a good fight for the sixth place with the Swedes. I’m very happy that we made it,” Ahrens said.
Asked which athlete he would single out he added: “You know I’d have to pick all four, they put their work in, and not having a penalty and shooting very solid all throughout. But also the skiing, really fighting it out there, attacking … And our anchor Brendan at the end, when Schempp passed him to go with him and catch the Swede was the highlight.”
“It’s a young season, but so far, besides our other relay, the mixed relay in Östersund, it’s definitely a highlight,” he added.
The U.S. men placed eighth (+2:06.6) with Lowell Bailey, Burke, Leif Nordgren, and Sean Doherty requiring a total of 12 spares and one penalty lap.
Sixth after Bailey’s first leg, in which he used one spare in prone and cleaned all of his targets, the U.S. moved into eighth with Burke, who ended up skiing a penalty lap after using all three spares on his second shooting (0+0, 1+3). Nordgren used a total of three spares between his two stages (0+2, 0+1) before tagging Doherty in ninth. Doherty recovered to eighth despite five spares (0+3, 0+2) with the sixth-fastest anchor leg.
“I was really happy with the performance. I felt a little bit better on course today, too,” Bailey wrote in an email, ”which is encouraging leading into the Pokljuka World Cup next week. I think we are satisfied as a team, but we all know that we have the potential to be on the podium…”
“We’re all capable of much more,” Nordgren wrote in an email. “This was a good starting point, but as we get deeper into the season we’ll be expecting more.”
Shipulin Attacks for the Win
n a large field of 27 starting countries, Russia came out at the top, requiring just six spare rounds and no penalty laps. Russia’s anchor Anton Shipulin achieved his first podium of the season on Sunday, and later said in the post-race press conference that he felt that he was “doing better and better race by race.” He put an exclamation mark to this statement on Sunday, outsprinting Norway’s Svendsen on the last meters.
“After the last shooting stage, I saw Emil was not too far away from me and I knew I had to attack and catch him; I was a bit better on the track, so that was basically the plan,” Shipulin said through a translator. “This was not just my victory; all of the guys on the team were really great today.”
Norway had decided to give superstar Ole Einar Bjørndalen some rest, with L’Abee-Lund starting in his place, then handing off to the Bø brothers and finally closing with Svendsen. For quite a while they looked like the eventual winners, with Tarjei Bø handing over to Svendsen with a 30.8 second lead over Russia at the final exchange. But that gap wasn’t enough.
Svendsen still led by 18.1 seconds after the penultimate shooting, and many local as well as Norwegian fans that had traveled to Austria loudly chanted the typical “Hey!” with every target he cleaned while uncontested in the range (0+0). He still came into the final stage first, but then required two spares and his lead shrunk significantly to 10.4 seconds when he left the stadium.
Seeing the opportunity to catch Norway, Shipulin began his chase up the last climbs, posting the best course time on the final loop and sprinting past Svendsen as they approached the finish. Just 3.1 seconds behind Russia in the finish, Norway required seven spare rounds, and had no penalties.
Despite the close loss, the Norwegians weren’t too disappointed: “The team did a good job today, and we are satisfied with the race,” L’Abee-Lund said during the press conference.
“I feel my shape and confidence is coming back,” Johannes Thingnes Bø said.”Hopefully after the New Year I will come back and fight with Fourcade, Schempp and the best.”
France grabbed the last spot on the podium, finishing more than a minute behind Russia, also requiring six spares and no penalty lap. The team chose a lineup of Simon Fourcade, Quentin Fillon Maillet, Simon Desthieux, and Martin Fourcade, and was skiing just outside the top three for most of the race.
Then, anchor Martin Fourcade, last year’s overall World Cup winner and runner-up in Friday’s sprint and winner of Saturday’s pursuit, managed to move them up one position after he required just one spare in his prone shooting. On the next loop, he crashed descending down a bridge before the final shooting stage, a mistake that didn’t cost France the podium, yet ended any chances to catch up to the two leading teams before the last shooting.
“It was not a perfect race, but I’m satisfied with it,” the team’s starter Simon Fourcade said in the press conference, after using one spare in prone and handing off in eighth. “I had some little mistakes in the shooting … But yeah, satisfied with the race today, and satisfied to see that my ski level is back.”
Local favorite Austria, with Sven Grossegger, Julian Eberhard, Simon Eder, and Dominik Landertinger placed fourth (+1:10.9) and just 9 seconds off the podium, despite having to ski two penalty loops, which all the other top teams avoided. They used a total of 13 spares, two of which came from Landertinger on his first stage, but the Austrian anchor closed out the race with a flawless standing stage and the second-fastest time behind Shipulin on the final loop.
“A little bit more would have been possible, the two misses in prone shooting are really annoying,” Landertinger told Austrian broadcaster ORF. In the pursuit the day before, he had already achieved the best individual result of the season so far for his team.
Germany’s Simon Schempp, who had battled Martin Fourcade for the win in the other two races this weekend, again skied a very strong last lap with the third-fastest time behind Shipulin and Landertinger and only required two spares. With that performance he elevated his squad from 10th to fifth place (+1:18.4), after his teammates Erik Lesser, Andreas Birnbacher and Benedikt Doll struggled throughout the race with shooting. Uncharacteristically, Germany required 16 spares, the second-most of any team on Sunday, and narrowly avoided the penalty lap on four of eight stages.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the day was Sweden in seventh (+1:26.1), with Torstein Stenersen, Ted Armgren, Fredrik Lindström and Jesper Nelin. Aside from Lindström, the team had little World Cup experience. Despite that, Sweden managed to stay near the top the whole race and even tagged off in third place on the last exchange, before Nelin missed three targets on his leg and fell back a bit to seventh place, finishing 2.9 seconds after Canada and 40.5 seconds ahead of the U.S.
- 4 x 7.5 k men's relay
- Alexander Volkov
- Anton Shipulin
- Brendan Green
- Canadian men
- Christian Gow
- Dimitry Malyshko
- Dominik Landertinger
- Emil Hegle Svendsen
- Evgeny Garanichev
- Henrik L'Abee-Lund
- IBU World Cup
- IBU World Cup relay
- Johannes Thingnes Bø
- Julian Eberhard
- Leif Nordgren
- Lowell Bailey
- Martin Fourcade
- Nathan Smith
- norwegian men's relay
- Quentin Fillon Maillet
- Russian men's relay
- Scott Gow
- Sean Doherty
- Simon Desthieux
- Simon Eder
- Simon Fourcade
- Sven Grossegger
- Tarjei Bø
- Tim Burke
- U.S. men
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.