End of the season? One week after World Championships? No problem for guys like Simon Schempp. The 27-year-old German came out on all cylinders on Saturday after starting second in the men’s 12.5-kilometer pursuit in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, 1 second behind Austria’s Julian Eberhard in first.
The first loop and prone shooting didn’t hurt Schempp, but it didn’t necessarily help him, either. After entering the range in second, right behind Eberhard, Schempp proceeded to miss one and emerged from the penalty loop in third, nearly 10 seconds behind another Austrian Dominik Landertinger in first. Schempp’s teammate Erik Lesser had moved into second place with clean shooting, like Landertinger, and left the range 8.5 seconds behind the Austrian and about a second ahead of Schempp.
Meanwhile, Eberhard missed two and dropped to fourth, 22.7 seconds back.
Lesser caught Landertinger quickly on the next loop, and Schempp remained glued to Lesser’s tails in second as they entered the range together for the second time. There, Lesser cleaned prone once again, Eberhard cleaned to move into second, 17.6 seconds back. American Tim Burke cleaned his second-straight stage to leave the range in third, 21 seconds after Lesser.
Where was Schempp? Despite another miss, he was still in contention in fourth, 1.4 seconds behind Burke. Following Schempp, Norway’s Johannes Thingnes Bø cleaned his second stage in a row to improve to fifth after starting seventh (behind Burke in sixth).
What was shaping up proved to be a showdown between Schempp and Bø, which would play out on the final loop.
Schempp cleaned his first standing stage while Bø continued on the path of perfect shooting, putting them in second and first, respectively. Bø led Schempp by 0.3 seconds into the fourth of five laps, and the two skied together before the going head to head in the final shooting.
There, both missed one, but Bø did so faster, leaving the range first. Schempp followed 3.4 seconds later and prepared for the one last push to the finish.
“I know that he can shoot incredibly fast,” Schempp said of Bø in a post-race interview with Germany’s ZDF. “But I can also risk it at the end and push the tempo if necessary. We both were pretty exhausted, especially for the last shooting. So we both did it the same way [missed one], and went out together on the final loop, with the better outcome for me.”
Bø continued to lead the duo for the bulk of the last loop, before Schempp attacked with about half a kilometer to go. Bø initially chased, then realized the gap was too much to overcome and backed off before the finish. Schempp won the final pursuit of the season in 33:27.8 while Bø claimed second, 8.5 seconds later.
“I came out of the shooting range in the first place. I knew there would be a fight with Schempp,” Bø recalled in a post-race press conference. “On the final downhill Simon had more power.”
“After the World Championships my shape is getting better and better,” Schempp said at the press conference. “I feel a lot of power in my legs. Nevertheless, I thought the win was possible only 200 meters before the finish.”
Lesser locked up third, 15.7 seconds back, after one miss on each of his standing stages. He held off Switzerland’s Benjamin Weger, who shot 20-for-20 to improve from 11th at the start to fourth at the finish (+18.7).
“I think this is the last time the World Cup will be in Khanty-Mansiysk, so I can put in some effort one last time,” Lesser told ZDF, after previously saying he lacked motivation in the Khanty sprint because he had not been successful there in the past. Lesser started the race in fifth, 38 seconds back, while Weger overcame a 1:15 starting deficit.
“In the beginning of the lap I wanted to get ahead of Weger to secure a gap,” Lesser said in the press conference. “Last year we had a similar fight in the mass start, and he beat me. Now it was reverse, and I am satisfied about it.”
A third German in the top five, Benedikt Doll placed fifth (+27.3) with two penalties (1+0+1+0), and Burke tied his season best from Friday’s sprint in sixth (+31.3) with two misses as well (0+0+1+1).
“I’m very happy with my races so far here in Khanty,” Burke wrote in a post-race email. “I mean, these are my two best results of the season so I can’t be too disappointed. But I am also like most athletes in that I always want more!”
After starting 53 seconds back in sixth, 15 seconds behind Lesser and 9 seconds ahead of Bø, Burke skied alone during the first 2.5 k loop.
“This is very unusual in a pursuit, especially for the first lap,” he explained. “I just tried to stay focused on setting a good pace that I could maintain for the entire race. I feel like many athletes tend to go out way too fast in the pursuit, so it was nice to settle into my own pace.”
By the time he made his way into third at the race’s halfway point, Burke reflected that he continued to focus on his normal routine.
“Of course this is easier said than done but I try to keep my focus the same if I’m fighting for a podium or if I’m in the back of the pack,” he wrote. “Even with a penalty in each standing stage, I was within striking distance of the podium so it was no problem to keep fighting all the way to the finish.”
After a miss in the third stage, Burke left the range in fifth, 22 seconds out of first. One lap later and with another miss in the final bout, he was 27 seconds back in sixth.
“Tomorrow should be another good opportunity for me,” he said of the 15 k mass start. “I am definitely still in good shape and our technicians have put us on great skis here. Tomorrow I just want to execute my game plan. If I can do that, I know I will be happy with the result.”
For Schempp, the goal is to continue to improve in the World Cup standings, as he currently sits in fourth — 37 points behind Russia’s Anton Shipulin in third. Bø swapped places with Shipulin in the standings on Saturday, moving into second, 14 points ahead of the Russian. Shipulin started the pursuit 45th and improved to 20th with three penalties (0+1+1+1). France’s Martin Fourcade has unofficially won the World Cup crown, giving him the luxury to sit out the pursuit after placing 40th in the sprint.
“My season has been very good so far,” Bø said at the press conference. “I managed to attain a goal of being in the top 10 in the World Cup Total Score. I see now that I am in second, so I would like to preserve this.”
After notching sixth in the Nation Cup to secure a fifth men’s quota spot for next season, three U.S. men raced the pursuit on Saturday, with Lowell Bailey improving from 31st to 22nd (+2:06) with one penalty (0+0+1+0) and Sean Doherty finishing 32nd (+2:47.7) with five misses (2+1+1+1). Doherty started 21st.
“I really wanted to put together a solid shooting performance today,” Bailey wrote in an email. “I wasn’t really that happy with yesterday’s Sprint, especially in the range.”
In Friday’s sprint, he missed two prone targets. He cleaned both prone stages on Saturday, with his only miss coming in the first standing stage. After the second prone, Bailey rose as high as 19th and held that position even after a miss on the next stage.
“I was happy to have moved up by that point, but I also know that a lot can happen after the midpoint of a pursuit,” he wrote. “Typically, most misses happen in the last two stages so I just tried to maintain my focus through the end of the race. … It was definitely a battle out on the course today. I’m pretty tired coming off of World Champs so I really just tried to give what I had left.”
Overall in the World Cup, Burke ranks 15th and Bailey is 17th, earning them both a spot in Sunday’s mass start.
“I’d like to finish with a quality performance; good shooting and solid skiing,” Bailey wrote of the season-ending World Cup race. “If I can do that, the result will follow!”
Canada’s lone starter, Brendan Green improved from 42nd to 36th (+3:05.2) with three penalties (0+0+2+1). His teammate Nathan Smith, who is 28th in the World Cup standings, is listed as a reserve on the mass start’s provisional start list, but has not raced yet this weekend.
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.