For Germany and Norway, it was a two-way battle for first following the final exchange of the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay on Saturday at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Antholz, Italy.
There, thanks to third-leg Johannes Thingnes Bø, Norway had taken the lead by 17.7 seconds over Germany and built a 38-second gap to Russia in third. Ukraine was another nine seconds back in fourth, skiing just ahead of France and the U.S. in fifth and sixth through the exchange, respectively.
So for the U.S. in Saturday’s relay, the last one before 2017 IBU World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, next month, it was a fight for a team-best result — which would have been fourth.
Regardless, top six had been a goal for the U.S. men, according to US Biathlon Men’s Coach Jonas Johansson, based on their individual performances the day before (with five men in the top 40).
Before we get to where they finished, let’s remember where the U.S. men’s relay started: in bib 24 of 25, at the back of the pack.
Lowell Bailey raced them into sixth at the first exchange and 8.6 seconds out of the lead, with Russia’s Maxim Tsvetkov reaching the exchange first. Bailey had skied the fifth-fastest course time on that leg and shot quickly to clean with one spare in each of his two shooting stages.
Eighth after the first prone stage, he moved into sixth after his standing shooting. One loop later, he tagged his teammate Leif Nordgren in sixth.
Nordgren proceeded to jet into third after his prone stage, despite using two spares to clean.
“It was a big bummer to miss two in prone, but the rest of the group also missed so I was able to leave towards the front,” Nordgren explained in a US Biathlon press release.
He used one more spare to clean his standing stage and remained in third heading into his final loop. There, Nordgren’s lack of racing this season caught up to him (this was his fifth World Cup race of the season), and he tagged off in ninth, 27.6 seconds behind Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev in fifth.
“In the last loop I was holding on for dear life,” Nordgren told US Biathlon. “Those other guys have a lot more racing under their belts this year. I have four [races], so that made for a hard loop.”
While Nordgren and teammate Tim Burke had a shaky tag, which Burke described as a “bit of a collision,” Burke was able to emerge from it unscathed. He went on to ski the fourth-fastest third leg to bring the U.S. to sixth.
“I felt solid on course today,” Burke wrote in an email, after posting the third-fastest course time for that leg.
He used three spares to clean prone — any more misses and he would’ve had to ski a penalty loop — and started his second loop in ninth. The next time in the range, Burke cleaned standing without any spares and set out on his last loop in seventh.
“I pushed hard all the way to the shooting point before prone, which, in hindsight, was probably a bit too aggressive,” he reflected. “For standing my goal today was stay aggressive and I was happy with how that worked out.”
Burke started his last loop with France’s Simon Desthieux. “We were able to really push on the last loop and pull the others back,” Burke explained. “I wanted to hand off to Sean with the group that would fight for third place.”
Burke tagged his teammate Sean Doherty in sixth, 11.6 seconds out of third and just 4.3 seconds behind fourth. Meanwhile, Norway had taken the lead after Bø’s standing stage with clean shooting (and after using just one spare to clean prone) while Russia dropped to third with a total of four spares from Dmitry Malyshko.
Germany’s third-leg skier Arnd Peiffer took the lead after a miss-free prone stage, and using one spare in standing, left the range just 6 seconds after Bø to bring Germany into second at the final tag, 17.7 seconds from first.
Over the last three loops and two shooting stages, Norway’s anchor Emil Hegle Svendsen and Germany’s final skier Simon Schempp drew closer, with both cleaning prone without a miss. At the start of the second loop, Schempp was within 12.7 seconds of Svendsen. Back in the range for the last time, Svendsen missed his second and fifth shots, requiring two spares, and Schempp needed one spare to clean, and the two set out on the final loop together, with Svendsen leading by 0.3 seconds.
The two went head to head all the way to the finish, where Schempp ultimately outlunged Svendsen in a photo finish by one-tenth of a second. He secured the win for Germany in 1:13:57.2 hours, and the team — with Erik Lesser, Benedikt Doll, Peiffer and Schemmp — used a total of seven spares to avoid the penalty loop.
“I gave it everything I had in the end, and wanted to attack a little earlier but [Svendsen] attacked incredibly up the bridge,” Schempp recalled in a post-race interview with ZDF. “I had a feeling that we crossed the line pretty much together. Then I had to wait what the computer would show as a result.”
“He was a little stronger,” Svendsen told NRK after. “I have no other explanation than that. I had to make sure I did not ski into him … so I lost a little momentum there.”
At the last World Cup relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, Norway won with Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen, Henrik L’Abee-Lund, and Svendsen. Russia finished second, Germany was third, and the U.S. was 12th.
“I think we presented ourselves with top ski speed today, and on the shooting range it clearly went better than in Ruhpolding, especially for me,” Lesser said, referring to his penalty and the team’s total of nine spares in the Ruhpolding relay (compared to Russia, which had two, and Norway with five spares in Ruhpolding).
“We still have those seven spares, I can remember the last time we became World Champions we only had two spares, so we definitely can get down there, but it was a cool final rehearsal,” Lesser said.
Norway took second with Lars Helge Birkeland, L’Abée-Lund (who brought the team from fourth to second at the second exchange), Bø, and Svendsen, after using nine spares.
Russia ended up third (+33.6), with Tsvetkov, Garanichev, Malyshko, and Babikov, with a team total of nine spares as well, and Ukraine pulled off fourth (+46.7) with just five total spares, with Artem Pryma, Sergey Semenov, Vladimir Semakov, and Dmytro Pidruchnyi.
Ukraine embarked on the last leg in fourth, 1:04 minutes out of first and just ahead of France in fifth and the U.S. in sixth.
On their first loop together, Doherty moved into fourth, trailing Russia’s Babikov in third by about eight seconds. With France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet, Doherty bridged the gap to Babikov, passing the Russian but remaining in fourth as the Frenchman skied into third.
In their prone stage, Doherty used one spare and Fillon Maillet cleaned to leave the range just ahead of him in fifth, while Doherty followed in sixth. Five teams continued to fight for the podium, with Ukraine’s Pidruchnyi leading them in third.
Pidruchnyi didn’t miss a shot in either stage to hold that position until his final loop, where Babikov passed him to claim the third spot on the podium, 12.9 seconds ahead of him.
In the final standing stage, Doherty and Austria’s Dominik Landertinger both used one spare and left the range in fifth and sixth, respectively. France dropped out of contention when Fillon Maillet had to ski a penalty lap.
“It was really exciting,” Doherty said of the last shooting in an interview with IBU TV. “The pace was really high. Came in and just tried really hard to focus on my own work, knowing there were some guys close in front and behind me. Luckily only one spare, and I was able to get out of there with staying out of the [penalty] loop.”
While Doherty left the range about three seconds ahead of Landertinger, the Austrian passed him during the first kilometer of their final loop. Landertinger extended his gap to Doherty to 12 seconds with less than half a kilometer remaining and anchored Austria to fifth (+49.2), 2.5 seconds out of fourth. Doherty finished sixth for the U.S. (+1:04.9), 15.7 seconds out of fifth.
Behind him, France’s Fillon Maillet finished seventh (+1:34.7). In all, Austria used eight spares and the U.S. had 10, but both avoided the penalty lap. France accumulated 14 spares and one penalty.
“Today’s sixth place was a very strong effort for the team,” Doherty told US Biathlon. “I am very happy to be skiing up in the mix and looking at the podium. There is still room to improve for World Championships, but it seems we are headed in the right direction.”
“Today we showed that we are competitive with the best in the world,” Bailey said in the same press release. “With 10 extra rounds, this is far from our best, but it is a big step in the right direction and exactly where we want to be heading into world champs.”
For the U.S., sixth was one place back from its team-best fifth, which it achieved with the same four men last year at the World Cup in Presque Isle, Maine.
“We are very satisfied with the result today,” Burke said. “With the exception of Lowell, it has been a bit of slow start for the rest of us with a mix of injuries and illnesses. This was definitely important for our confidence heading into World Champs.”
For every man on the team except Bailey, Saturday marked the last World Cup race before World Championships, which start Feb. 9.
Burke planned to stay in Antholz for the next two weeks to prepare.
“I feel like I am still not near my best, but at least I have been consistently in the mix the past two weeks,” Burke wrote. “Hopefully with a good training block over the next two weeks, I can still come to a higher level for World Championships.”
Bailey competed in Sunday’s 15 k mass start and finished 16th, 1:33.4 behind Norway’s Bø, who cleaned the four-stage race to win in 37:04.3. Bailey had two penalties in his last two stages (0+0+1+1), and in his first World Cup mass start, Canada’s Scott Gow finished 30th (+4:09.9) with four penalties (1+0+2+1).
The Canadian men’s relay finished 16th on Saturday (+4:13.8), with Christian Gow, Scott Gow, Macx Davies, and Brendan Green combining for two penalties and 11 spares. Both penalties came on Davies’s third leg. While the team was in 15th after Scott Gow’s second leg, they dropped to 18th on the third leg, but Green recovered two places to finish 16th.
— Harald Zimmer contributed
- Antholz IBU World Cup
- Antholz men's relay
- Arnd Peiffer
- Artem Pryma
- Benedikt Doll
- Brendan Green
- Christian Gow
- Dmitry Malyshko
- Dmytro Pidruchnyi
- Dominik Landertinger
- Emil Hegle Svendsen
- Erik Lesser
- Evgeniy Garanichev
- Henrik L'Abee-Lund
- Johannes Thingnes Bø
- Lars Helge Birkeland
- Leif Nordgren
- Lowell Bailey
- Macx Davies
- Maxim Tsvetkov
- men's 4 x 7.5 k relay
- Quentin Fillon Maillet
- Scott Gow
- Sean Doherty
- Sergey Semenov
- Simon Desthieux
- Simon Schempp
- Tim Burke
- US Biathlon
- Vladimir Semakov
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.