Perfection in a pursuit. That’s what’ll get you ahead and keep you there, as Germany’s Simon Schempp demonstrated on Saturday at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Pokljuka, Slovenia.
Two days after winning the men’s 10-kilometer sprint, Schempp started the 12.5 k pursuit with a 15-second head start on Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen in second. Twenty-five and 26 seconds back in third through fifth, respectively, Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev and Alexey Slepov and France’s Martin Fourcade set out after Schempp.
After placing third in the sprint, Garanichev fell out of contention for another podium with a miss in the first prone stage. He went on to clean the next two stages, but missed another on the final standing to end up sixth overall.
Slepov fared worse, with two penalties in each of the first two prone stages, then one in each standing for a total of six penalty laps. He placed 25th at the end of the day, while Schempp controlled the race from start to finish, winning with perfect 20-for-20 shooting in a time of 30:46.5.
Only Fourcade, the fifth starter, came close, rivaling Schempp with clean shooting through the first three stages. The Frenchman missed one on the last standing, which put him 18.4 seconds back leaving the range after a costly penalty loop. He finished 16.6 seconds after Schempp in second, and Russia’s Anton Shipulin rose from sixth to third with the fastest course time.
Shipulin finished 23.4 seconds after Schempp with two penalties (0+1+1+0), besting Norway’s Tarjei Bø, who was 1.8 seconds off the podium in fourth. Bø posted the second-fastest course time to pick off five places after starting ninth.
Only three out of 59 finishers cleaned the four-stage race: Schempp, France’s Simon Fourcade (who placed 10th), and Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström (14th).
“Maybe the last 200 meters were easy. Everything else was extremely hard,” Schempp said in an post-race interview with ZDF. “I didn’t quite have my best day out on the course today, and except for one loop with Martin, I always had to ski in front alone. That was quite energy-sapping.”
Fourcade was the fastest out of the start early on, racing from fifth up to third behind Schempp and Bjørndalen as they entered the range for the first time. There, all three men cleaned and Bjørndalen left the range nine seconds after Schempp in second while Fourcade was another 10 seconds back in third.
Second prone was more of the same, with the three leaders cleaning, yet Schempp maintained his distance with a 10-second cushion to Fourcade and Bjørndalen skiing together in second and third.
On the third loop, Fourcade, 27, dropped the 41-year-old Norwegian and entered the range right behind Schempp, where the top two cleaned all five targets once again. They set out on the penultimate loop together, where Fourcade made clear that he did not want to take the lead. Despite shooting faster, he waited for Schempp to go ahead of him.
“That was the same as last week, he just didn’t want to go in front,” Schempp said of Fourcade. “He had shot faster, then he stepped to the side and wanted to let me pass. I just yelled ‘Together!’ to him, and then he nodded and we changed back and forth. At first there was a bit of a disagreement, but then that calmed down…”
“I don’t really understand why he does that sometimes,” Schempp added. “We were in front, but the others are pressuring from behind, and if you work together, you should be faster and can create a small gap. My opinion is that you should work together, except for the last loop of course, but before that, yeah, I just have a slightly different opinion than him.”
“We collaborated a lot …,” Fourcade said in a post-race press conference. “It was a good solution. We were making sure we had positions one and two.”
In the final standing stage, Fourcade shot quickly, but missed the fourth shot, while Schempp cleaned.
“In the last shooting, I thought his second shot had missed. At least it sounded that way,” Schempp recalled.
“Before the race, I thought that I would try to do all I can to be first,” Fourcade said in the press conference. “Simon was a little calmer at the last shooting. He had his own rhythm.”
Fourcade came out of the penalty lap with an 18.4-second deficit, which proved insurmountable. He skied what appeared to be comfortable pace to the finish for second, 6.8 seconds ahead of Shipulin. After the race, Fourcade and Schempp hugged each other. It was Schempp’s eighth World Cup victory, his third win this season, and the third time he won both a sprint and the following pursuit in the same venue.
While Shipulin secured third on the final loop, he overcame a couple penalties. One miss in the second stage dropped him to eighth, and he left the range after another penalty in the third stage in sixth. When Bø missed one in the final shooting, Shipulin seized the opportunity and cleaned when it counted, leaving the range in fourth, three seconds behind Bø and passing him on the final loop to avoid a sprint to the finish.
“After the second penalty loop, I thought it was possible,” Shipulin said in a press conference. “I was hoping to shoot clean and thought I had a chance to get on the podium.”
According to the IBU website, with one race to go — Sunday’s mass start — Shipulin is eager to see his newborn son.
“I want to go home and see my son, but I try to stay motivated and focused on the upcoming competitions,” he said.
Burke Cracks Top 10
After starting 14th and 55 seconds behind Schempp, American Tim Burke improved to ninth with a single penalty (0+0+1+0), finishing 1:21.9 behind the German winner.
“[I’m] really happy with today; I had a really simple game plan with my shooting to try to stick to my few key words,” Burke said in a post-race phone interview. “I felt really comfortable out there.”
He skied alone for most of the race, which he found both odd and challenging. Burke started 9 seconds behind the 13th starter, Simon Desthieux of France, and four seconds ahead of US Biathlon teammate Lowell Bailey.
After cleaning the first prone stage, Burke had made his way up to 11th and 50.7 seconds behind Schempp, while Bailey had slipped one spot to 16th, 1:02 back. Both Americans cleaned the first shooting, but Bailey went on to miss one in each stage thereafter (0+1+1+1) and ended the day in 29th (+2:46).
“Not a bad day for me, but without near perfection, it’s hard to compete with this field,” Bailey said in a US Biathlon press release. “There was great overall shooting in the men’s field today so I lost a few places with penalties in each of the last three stages.”
Meanwhile, Burke cleaned the second prone and missed one on the third shooting to hover in the top 10 throughout the race. After hitting all his targets on the final standing, he left the range in ninth. Simon Fourcade trailed him by almost seven seconds in 10th at the beginning of the last loop, while Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen was almost 18 seconds ahead in eighth.
That left Burke in no-man’s land once more. On the first loop, he had worked hard to catch the group that was fighting for top-10 results, and while he bridged the gap 500 meters before the range, he exited the range just far enough behind those skiers that he remained alone, one loop after another.
“It was a little bit tougher for sure,” he said of the solo race. “I was hoping I’d be able to tuck in on the second loop and catch a little bit of a break.”
Burke worked especially hard the first couple loops to catch those ahead of him and said he felt the effects of that effort later in the race. Still, he held on and most importantly held it together for the last shooting.
“So much can change on the last shooting…,” Burke said. “I was hoping that people would finally start making mistakes there on the end. The last shooting, I shot on point 11 and shot zero and moved up one place. I was really happy to move back into the top 10; it’s the best race I’ve had in a while.”
At the same time, he reflected on how tight the race was. Given the race he had, with 19-for-20 shooting and the 19th-fastest course time, Burke would have guessed he would have finished in the top six. Not the case when the fastest guys don’t have to ski many penalty laps.
“It’s a fairly easy approach to the range here of so a lot of people shoot well here,” he noted.
Burke will be one of three North Americans starting Sunday’s 15 k mass start, with Canada’s Nathan Smith in bib 12, Bailey in 19th and Burke in 26th out of 30. Three seasons ago, Burke placed third in the Pokljuka mass start.
“I think it’ll be a great opportunity for me,” Burke said. “Typically I do well at the end of these trimesters … these three weeks of racing.
“At this point, fatigue definitely plays a big role for everyone, both mentally and physically,” he added. “A lot of people want to get home at this time. … For me, it’s one more race. I need to focus for 40 minutes out there and I think I can handle that.”
On Monday, the day after the Pokljuka World Cup ends and the IBU World Cup goes on holiday break, he’ll fly home to Lake Placid, N.Y.
While Bailey was the second man for the U.S. in 29th, Brendan Green was the top Canadian in 30th (+2:53.3). After starting 46th and cleaning the first three stages, Green missed two on the last standing and fought for a top 30 on the final loop.
For the first time in history, five Canadian men started the pursuit. Smith finished 35th (after starting 24th) with three penalties (1+0+2+0). Scott Gow started 35th and finished 45th with four misses (1+1+2+0), and Macx Davies slipped from 34th to 57th with six penalties (3+2+2+1). Despite skiing in the top-30 for a portion of the race, Christian Gow, in bib 37, did not finish.
“On my fourth lap I developed a debilitating cramp and had to stop the race,” Gow wrote in an email about his DNF. “I really wanted to finish, especially since I was having a good race, but I simply couldn’t. It is disappointing for me, but sometimes these things are out of your own control.”
“It was a tough day for our team,” Biathlon Canada’s High-Performance Director Eric de Nys said in a press release. “The coaches are thinking there may be a bit of a flu bug going around. Nathan and Rosanna [Crawford] both felt off today. Christian completely cramped up and Megan [Tandy] blacked out on the course. It was an off day, but they will review the day with the athletes and bounce back from this.”
American Leif Nordgren made up a few spots in 49th (after starting 52nd) despite four penalties (0+1+2+1).
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.