Ask any athlete competing in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, and they’ll likely tell you it’s hard to focus. Sure, there’s the Siberian sunset — a breathtaking backdrop to the final IBU World Cup races of the season. But then there’s the fact that these are the last races of the season, and they come at the end of a long haul of nine World Cups and a World Championships.
“I have been fighting really hard to stay focused,” American Tim Burke wrote in an email after Friday’s 10-kilometer sprint. “Because I have to admit, it is easy to start focusing more on returning home then racing at this time of year.”
He wasn’t alone.
“I am noticing that the tension [focus] is a bit gone after the World Championships,” Austria’s Dominik Landertinger told Austria’s ORF. “But I managed to completely focus on the competition today.”
While Landertinger ultimately finished fourth with clean shooting, and Burke placed sixth for a season best with a single standing penalty, Friday’s victory went to Julian Eberhard — the first Austrian to win a sprint in 15 years.
“After the World Championships that were disappointing for me, I didn’t have anything to lose today and just put all my eggs in one basket,” Eberhard, 29, told ORF. “I knew the shooting works, and just pulled through. I didn’t do anything differently on the shooting range than usual, I just worked off what I can do. On the course it then was hard work. But there I could rely on my qualities [abilities]. Also the equipment was great.”
Like the rest of the top-five finishers, Eberhard cleaned the two-stage race. He also skied the second-fastest course time to clinch the win. After starting 40th, Eberhard edged Germany’s Simon Schempp (in bib 21) by 1.1 seconds. On his 29th birthday, Germany’s Arnd Peiffer placed third, 23 seconds back.
“I felt pretty good today, and here in Khanty I usually do,” Peiffer told Germany’s ZDF. “When I got through with zero-zero [clean shooting] I knew this could be a good result today. … At the end of the day, the procedure is the same. On a birthday, you have a few more phone calls than usual, with relatives and a few others. Of course it’s nice if everything works out on a day like this.”
Schempp skied the fastest course time and topped his teammate Peiffer’s time by nearly 22 seconds at the finish. While it looked like a German 1-2 sweep, Eberhard came through and knocked them both down one step on the podium. With clean shooting, he led after both his first and second stages, leaving the range 1.9 seconds up on Schempp’s time with one loop to go.
While Eberhard told reporters afterward that he was confident in his ability to reach the podium, Friday’s win was his first-career podium after placing fourth in the Canmore sprint earlier this season.
“This year I had a very difficult season on the shooting range,” Eberhard told ZDF. “I knew that I was able to be in the mix on the course in every race, and today it worked out. So I am all the more elated.”
For Schempp, who ranks fourth in the overall World Cup standings with two more individual races to go (Saturday’s pursuit and Sunday’s mass start), the goal for the overall podium remains.
“… When you put on a race bib, I always want to be as far ahead as possible, no matter if it is a World Championship, a World Cup, or some other race,” he told ZDF. “Today I just wanted to achieve my optimum again, and I think that worked out very well, and I can live very well with that. I hope the next two days will be just like this one.”
France’s Martin Fourcade has a lock on the World Cup overall by an insurmountable 367 points, while Russia’s Anton Shipulin is currently second, just 19 points ahead of Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø in third, and Schempp is another 57 points behind Bø in fourth.
On Friday, Fourcade placed 40th with an uncharacteristic four penalties — three prone and one standing — on an essentially wind-free evening with steady snowfall.
“Today was not my day. I don’t know, I felt good on the skis and I felt motivated, in spite of the [overall World Cup] Globe already done,” Fourcade told ZDF. “I need to analyze my prone shooting, it’s where I did bad today, but honestly I was really focused on my competition, and it was not because of a lack of motivation. I can’t say why I was bad today, but yeah, I’ll try to do better in the mass start. I think I will not compete in the pursuit.”
Shipulin placed even farther back in 45th with just one standing miss but the 60th-ranked course time of 84 finishers. No Russians placed in the top 20 at their home World Cup.
Then there was Burke — the best finisher with a miss in sixth. He finished 52.6 seconds out of first with the fifth-fastest course time. Ahead of him, Landertinger placed fourth (+28.2) and Germany’s Erik Lesser was fifth (+38.1). Bø finished about 10 seconds behind Burke in seventh.
“I knew there would be a lot of physically and mentally tired athletes here, so I looked at this world cup as a great opportunity,” Burke explained.
“This World Cup definitely has a more relaxed feel coming after World Champs,” he wrote. “I knew that I was still in good shape after World Champs and I really wanted to perform here in Russia.”
Earlier this month at World Championships in Olso, Norway, Burke placed 14th in the sprint and 12th in the mass start for his two best individual results at the championships.
“I went out hard from the start today and just tried to hold on,” he wrote on Friday. “I was a little nervous at about 5k that I had started too aggressive but it worked out in the end.”
The fourth starter, Burke initially finished second to Landertinger in bib 3. After a clean prone, his time leaving the range for the second loop held up as fifth fastest overall. And after his standing penalty, his time ranked ninth overall leaving the range for the last time.
“Of course I am happy with my 6th place but I always want more!” Burke added.
All three Americans qualified for the pursuit, with Sean Doherty finishing 21st (+1:38.3) with two prone misses and Lowell Bailey in 31st (+1:55.4) with one penalty in each stage.
“I was a bit disappointed with the prone misses but I felt great on the skis and I kept the focus up,” Doherty told US Biathlon. “It was a good overall race and I am excited for the pursuit.”
Above all, the U.S. men’s team clinched a best-ever sixth in the Nation Cup.
“Today was also a great day for the team, as we secured 6th place in the men’s Nation Cup score,” Burke wrote. “This is a best ever for this team and we are all very excited about that. We have come a long way since my start on the World Cup!
“Our ski technicians also did an amazing job today,” the 34-year-old New York native added. “The conditions are really tricky here with slow, dirty snow and some of the big teams struggled. We only have three technicians here but the nailed it today and I am confident that we were on the best skis.”
“Congrats to my teammates, coaches, and staff,” Bailey said in the press release. “It takes a lot of support just to get to the start line at a World Cup, let alone compete with some of the best teams in the world.”
Brendan Green was the top Canadian in 42nd (+2:08.1) with two standing penalties. Macx Davies placed 73rd with three misses (1+2), Scott Gow was 76th with five penalties (2+3) and Nathan Smith did not start. Last Saturday, Green, Smith, Gow and Gow’s younger brother Christian teamed up for bronze in the men’s relay at World Championships.
The women’s and men’s pursuits take place Saturday at 7:50 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, respectively, and can be watched live online at Eurovision.
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.