Russia Rebounds to Win Men’s Relay; USA Seventh, Just Missing Goal

Chelsea LittleFebruary 18, 2017
The men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay podium at 2017 IBU World Championships on Saturday in Hochfilzen, Austria, with Russia (c) in first, France (l) in second, and Austria (r) in third. (Photo: IBU World Champs/Twitter)

HOCHFILZEN, Austria—Redemption, validation, national pride: just a few of the things that were on the line in today’s 4 x 7.5 k relay at IBU World Championships.

For Austria, it was clear: a good performance on home soil was critical. The team hadn’t won a medal yet despite eight chances to do so.

For Germany, the question was whether their accomplished men’s team could live up to the expectations set by its younger women’s team, which has won every relay this year, including at World Championships.

For Norway, there had been no gold so far, but the men wanted to defend their title from last year’s Championships in Oslo.

Russia? Relays were seeming like the best way to take medals. They had earned bronze in the mixed relay, but been locked out ever since. Plus, the team has been embroiled in politics. Things were getting complicated.

France’s Martin Fourcade has dominated the whole season, but only won one gold at World Championships. Would the relay be the place he could finally get a second?

Plus, Canada won bronze in the team event last year, and the U.S. men’s team, often a top-six threat, was looking to capitalize on the energy from Lowell Bailey’s gold in the 20 k individual.

Any number of teams wanted a slice of the podium. But there were only three steps, and only one set of gold medals.

Out of the start, a team that nobody had expected shot to the front: Latvia. Andrejs Rastorgujevs, always one of the fastest skiers in the field, decided to make a breakaway already on the first loop. He then quickly cleaned prone and continued to lead on his own through the second loop.

Using spares in standing, though, the strategy didn’t seem to pay off. Germany staked a claim as soon as he faltered, with veteran Erik Lesser cleaning both shooting stages with no spare rounds and then attacking the final loop. He tagged off to Benedikt Doll with 5.8 seconds on the competition.

“Erik is such a great finisher,” U.S. lead skier Lowell Bailey – who tagged off 12.4 seconds back in fourth place, after using one spare round – said of Lesser. “In that situation he is nearly unstoppable. Hats off to him. He knows how to ski relays.”

While Lesser had thrown down, many teams weren’t so far behind him. By the end of the third leg, Benedikt Doll had thrown away Germany’s lead with poor shooting and six teams were still within 32 seconds of first place. Gone were the U.S., Canada, and Norway. Anton Babikov had turned in a hero’s performance to take Russia to the front, and his team was now chased by Austria, France, Germany, Ukraine, and Italy.

Anton Shipulin had taken over for Russia with a slight lead over Austria and France. Martin Fourcade, the French anchor, chased hard, and passed Austria’s Dominik Landertinger. With a clean prone from both Fourcade and Shipulin, the race narrowed. But Shipulin still had some seconds of cushion when he came in for standing.

He needed them: Shipulin used one spare. Fourcade shot quickly, cleaned, and tried to catch the Russian. He left the range 4.2 seconds back, setting up a battle between two of the top men on the World Cup.

“Today the last round for me was the most difficult, because I knew that Martin Fourcade is a very strong athlete,” Shipulin said through a translator at the press conference. “I was just trying to run faster than him.”

It turned into the battle that wasn’t, however, with Shipulin pulling away and coasting to a 5.8-second win for Russia.

“I think it was too complicated for me today,” Fourcade said. “I am not in my best shape. Anton was really strong on the track. I tried in the beginning of the race to catch him, and I almost did it. But then he had a bit more power than I had.”

While the Russian fans weren’t the most numerous in the stands, they were among the most passionate. And the team had delivered for them.

“I feel relieved for our team and our country,” Shipulin said. “I think it has been almost ten years we have not won any [World Championships] in the relay. So we are just really lucky and really happy, and we are going to celebrate.”

(Russia did win gold at the 2014 Olympics.)

Behind Fourcade and Shipulin, Landertinger of Austria and Simon Schempp of Germany were both trying desperately to secure a podium spot, but there was only room for one.

Schempp initially appeared to have better skis on the downhills on the front end of the loop. But on the major climb on the back end, Landertinger accelerated and Schempp was utterly unable to follow. To the monstrous roar of the crowd, Landertinger skied into the stadium to take bronze with his three teammates.

“It was very, very hard,” Landertinger told Austrian broadcaster ORF. “Simon is one of the best anchor skiers I know. When I skied out of the range after the shooting and saw him just four or five meters behind me, I knew it would be very difficult. I probably looked at that climb a hundred times in training, and it was pretty clear I would do my attack there. And thank God that worked out great.”

Schempp was deflated, but said that Germany needed to have an overall better team performance to secure a podium. Eight spares wouldn’t to it.

“It wasn’t enough for the podium today,” he told German broadcaster ARD. “I gave everything I had, everything that was left. Unfortunately we were not convincing on the shooting range today.”

Doll apologized too: four of the eight spare rounds came from him, including three in the standing stage, which had dropped the team to seventh at the time.

“Everyone did their best, I also tried to do my best,” he said. “But I just didn’t have it in my head today. I am really sorry about that, it really hurts because half the used spares were on me. I might have to give out a bar round tonight. I have to take a large part of the blame on me.”

For the Austrian team, the medal was long-awaited and cause for celebration.

Leadoff skier Daniel Mesotitsch was also the leadoff guy when Austria took bronze on this same course back at 2005 World Championships.

“It feels just as great as back then,” the 40-year-old told ORF. “There is no better feeling than winning a medal at home with the team. We are all overwhelmed by our emotions. I was briefly feeling sick to my stomach even watching [the last loop]. I was a lot more nervous than during my own loop.”

But now, a medal is theirs.

“It’s beautiful,” Landertinger said. “Really, really beautiful. And I have to say, what I experienced today with those fans, I already got goosebumps coming into the arena today. And I am proud that I can race here. And now with this medal I achieved the goal I had, and I am brutally happy now.”

U.S. Team Seventh, Just Out of Top-Six Goal

Bailey delivered as the U.S. team’s leadoff racer, using just one spare round and staying near the front for the whole race. After the team could not contest the first few relays of the season, they lost valuable Nations Cup and relay points and started with a high bib number. Bailey had to make up the time on the range, rather than the trails.

“There was no where to go –it’s actually fairly narrow for a World Championships Course,” Bailey said. “There wasn’t a lot of room to work. With the high bib number you actually hit the [shooting] point [on the range] before a lot of other people, so I really was just focusing on getting my first shot off quick. I did, but I missed it unfortunately. The key is just in that first prone is keeping enough contact, so I really pushed the pace in shooting and pushed that extra round so I could maintain contact.”

While he was confident coming off his gold medal on Thursday, Bailey was also tired. He wasn’t sure how he was going to feel, or if he would be able to make up time on the trails once the pack thinned out enough for him to move.

“I was a little nervous about today, because the last 48 hours have been a little bit wild and I slept two hours the night after the individual,” he admitted. “I didn’t go to bed late. I just lay there and Erika and I were both wide awake, occasionally like, ‘Are you sleep?’ ‘No, are you sleep?’ ‘No, shit.’ You have to put your feet back on the ground, back in the ski boots.”

By the time he tagged off to Leif Nordgren, the U.S. was in fourth place, more or less where they wanted to be.

Then, Nordgren cleaned prone and moved into second place, 0.4 seconds behind Germany’s Doll. Really right where they wanted to be.

“I kind of took my time a little bit in prone,” Nordgren said. “I wanted to make sure I hit all five targets not using any extras, so that went really well.”

The pair were soon consumed by a chase back, but that didn’t bother Nordgren.

“I left the range right with Doll there for the lead, and then he didn’t push super hard the second loop so it was no problem staying with him. But of course it allowed some guys from behind to catch up, which, no big deal.”

In standing, Nordgren used one spare, dropping to fifth, and then stayed in sixth place on the trails. Despite losing places, he was still just 17.7 seconds out of the lead.

“I think I paced the race really well,” said Nordgren. “I was right there. I couldn’t quite close the gap, but you know, I think I kept us right in there, so yeah, I am happy.”

Tim Burke used one spare in prone and three in standing, and blamed his spare rounds partly on exhaustion.

“I feel so bad on the skis, it’s such a fight from the first kilometer,” he said. “By the time I got to standing my legs were cramping, and I — yeah. It’s so much easier when you’re feeling good, you can push and recover and get in the flow. When you’re just fighting the whole loop to try keep your head above water, and then you hit the mat to shoot, it’s just brutally hard.”

Despite a performance that left him frustrated, the U.S. was still in seventh place when Sean Doherty took over to race the anchor leg. He used two spares in prone and then cleaned standing, heading out on course in seventh place and on the hunt: Ukraine was just 3.2 seconds ahead.

The top six was not meant to be, though.

“I just didn’t have it in the legs today and that’s pretty frustrating,” Doherty said after crossing the line seventh, +1:50.5. “You know, to be so close to sixth there and not have the gear on the last lap to push it through. I gave it all I had and just didn’t have enough.”

With a total to eight spare rounds – not bad, but more than Russia’s three or France’s four – the team was missing the last little bit that would have gotten them to where they wanted to be.

“I would say we were hunting for the top six, and you know, Leif and Lowell got us off to such a great start,” Doherty said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to really follow up on that. I think we all had it in us, just couldn’t quite get that critical mass.”

Canada 13th in Hunt for Medal Defense

Last year, the men’s relay was the best moment in several Canadian team members’ sporting careers. They won an unexpected bronze medal and were the sensation of World Championships.

This season, Nathan Smith has been out with a virus. That gave Macx Davies a chance to start. But overall, the team couldn’t match their form from the year before. With ten spares overall, they crossed the line 13th, +3:35.5.

“I was just hoping to have a good race for myself,” said Davies, for whom it was the first World Championships relay start. “It is hard to put any [results goals] on relays because it is a team event, and I am not the other three guys… It hasn’t been bad, it just has been a little too slow, especially a few too many spares for us. We need to miss less than the other nations if we ski, or if I ski, like I did today.”

“I could have definitely done better than I did today,” said leadoff racer Christian Gow, who had three spares. “Too many mistakes on the range, but I am at least happy with my skiing… I think it was a pretty good ski day. I think it is the closest I have been with that many spares. The skiing was pretty decent, but I dropped the ball in the range.”

-Gerry Furseth, Harald Zimmer, and Ian Tovell contributed


Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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