Does anybody remember when Simon Schempp placed 77th in the first International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup sprint of the season two weeks ago in Östersund, Sweden? The German missed four out of five targets in each of two shooting stages for an insurmountable eight penalties. That was three days after he placed second in the 20-kilometer individual race, in which he hit 19-of-20 targets.
As the best biathletes know, sometimes you’ve got it, sometimes you don’t.
However, Schempp, 27, appears to be on something of a streak after winning his second-straight sprint in the last two World Cup weekends: he fired on all cylinders and cleaned to win in Hochfilzen, Austria, then topped Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen with some blazing-fast loops in Pokljuka, Slovenia, to win the men’s 10 k sprint on Thursday.
With a winning time of 23:02.5, Schempp shot 100 percent with the best of them: Bjørndalen in second (+15.2) also cleaned, as did the two Russians in third and fourth — Evgeniy Garanichev (+25.1) and Alexey Slepov (+25.3), respectively.
France’s Martin Fourcade was fastest with a single miss (0+1) and ended up fifth (+25.6).
“I just felt good again today,” Schempp told the German broadcaster ZDF after the race. “Everything worked well on the shooting range again. The conditions for shooting were very good. … I felt good on the track, and of course it’s crazy if it was sufficient again today.”
For Schempp, the World Cup victory was his seventh in his career and it came on a day with practically invariable conditions. The sun was shining in Pokljuka and there wasn’t much wind, helping nine of the eventual top-15 finishers hit all of their targets.
While Schempp started 52nd and picked off his biggest rivals for the win, including Bjørndalen in bib 14, Garanichev in bib 17 and Fourcade in bib 20, with the second-fastest overall course time, US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey started seventh and cleaned both stages for his moment in the spotlight.
Albeit briefly, Bailey was initially first at the finish after holding off Norway’s Tarjei Bø on the final loop. Bø started 30 seconds behind Bailey, and ultimately bested the American’s time by 22.2 seconds. With a single standing penalty (0+1), Bø placed ninth overall (+36.9), while Bailey settled into 15th (+59.1).
“Although I started out fairly slow in the first lap, I was happy that I was able to keep Tarjei off my back for the final loop,” Bailey wrote in an email. “He’s in great shape right now and I wasn’t sure I could keep him behind me until the finish!”
Bailey explained the Pokljuka course is one of his favorites on the circuit, with long gradual uphills — totaling 336 meters (1,100 feet) of climbing per loop — and several transitions. He chose the early start as he and his coaches thought the tracks would be fastest at the beginning of the race.
There were some icy patches, as Fourcade nearly crashed on the first loop on a steep downhill where racers approached 70 kilometers per hour. Fourcade narrowly avoided skiing off the trail and finished the race 0.5 seconds off the podium.
Germany’s Arnd Peiffer fell at the end of his first loop while approaching the range, breaking the sole of his boot and costing him valuable time. Despite clean shooting, he ended up 42nd (+1:38.6).
Bailey’s teammate, Tim Burke set out on the course in bib 37, cleaned prone and missed one standing to place 14th, 4.5 seconds ahead of Bailey. It was Burke’s first top 20 of the season.
And Bailey, like Schempp, had recovered from 68th in the Östersund sprint (with six penalties), to place 12th in Hochfilzen with perfect 10-for-10 shooting.
“I was really happy with the way that shooting went [today],” Bailey wrote on Thursday. “I didn’t feel 100% on the tracks, but it wasn’t bad either.”
While Bailey had the fifth-fastest shooting time (and 41st-ranked course time), Burke was 13th-fastest on the course.
“This is definitely one of my favorite courses,” Burke wrote in an email. “I think it suits my strengths well with long, sustained gradual climbs. I am able to V2 most of the course, which is definitely my best technique.”
He explained he focused on his race plan rather than a specific result. In two previous sprints this season, Burke placed 30th in Hochfilzen (and 27th in the following pursuit), and 45th in Östersund. Thursday marked his best shooting in an individual race this season.
“Of course I always want a better result but I am satisfied with my time back,” he wrote. “In the sprint last week and this week, I had the skiing to make it to the podium with clean shooting and that’s where I want to be.”
Nathan Smith led the Canadians in 24th with 90-percent shooting (1+0). He started ninth and finished 1:15.9 back from Schempp, notably with the second-fastest shooting time and third-ranked range time of 102 finishers.
Burke, Bailey and Smith all qualified for Saturday’s pursuit, along with four other Canadians, including Macx Davies in 34th (+1:28.8), and Scott Gow in 35th (+1:30), both with a single penalty. Christian Gow cleaned to place 37th (+1:31.3) and meet the top-60 pursuit criteria, as did Brendan Green, who had two prone misses en route to 46th (+1:47.3). American Leif Nordgren finished 52nd (+2:02), with one standing penalty, and his teammate Sean Doherty placed 71st (+2:31.3) with four misses (3+1).
— Harald Zimmer contributed reporting
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.