Russia’s Anton Shipulin and Germany’s Simon Schempp have met multiple times on the final loop of an International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup race and duked it out for first, both in individual races as well as relays. In fact, they did so in Saturday’s pursuit in Antholz, Italy, where Shipulin prevailed by 10 seconds to claim his first victory of the season.
On Sunday in the men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay in the same packed arena with over 20,000 biathlon fans, Shipulin did it again to anchor a Russian team — with Maxim Tsvetkov, Evgeny Garanichev and Dmitry Malyshko — to first in 1:12:24.8, with no penalties and seven spare rounds.
The German team, with Erik Lesser, Benedikt Doll, Arnd Peiffer, and Schempp, finished just 1 second behind, with one penalty but just four spares.
“It has become sort of a tradition with me and Simon together on the last shooting range and then on the last lap,” Shipulin commented in the post-race press conference through a translator. “Honestly Simon becomes stronger and stronger every time, but today I would say I didn’t beat him physically, it was more about tactics. It is not a very long finish lane here, so I just made it tactically better to not give him a chance.”
“Being on the podium shows that we are in good shape,” Malyshko said through a translator. “We will try our best at the World Championships [in Oslo in March] to show everybody that we are even stronger than in the World Cups.”
“We trust in Anton, and Anton believes in the team,” one of Shipulin’s teammates added in an interview with the IBU.
Schempp was not pleased with a situation that happened when he and Shipulin came into the arena, having to pass a lapped athlete from Japan just before the last turn, with Shipulin overtaking on the right but Schempp getting slightly blocked.
“The lapped athlete ran in the middle of the track. The whole audience was yelling for him to go to the side. I don’t know, maybe he is deaf on his ears, or whatever he is doing,” Schempp told German broadcaster ARD. “With all the peace of mind he is running right between us, and that must not happen.”
Asked if he thought a protest with the IBU would be an option, Schempp replied: “Nah, surely that would not go through. That result stands.”
“I gave everything I had, it was a neat relay, and we were rewarded with the second place,” he added. “The Russians were very, very strong, especially Anton in the finish. We can live with that. It was a clear step forward in the relays [the German men’s first relay podium of the season]. Of course the end is a little annoying, but we can be satisfied.”
The head coaches for German and Russia, Mark Kirchner and Ricco Gross, respectively, hugged and congratulated each other in the coaching zone after the race. Both 45 years old, they are former German teammates and won gold together in the men’s relay at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. More recently, they were also colleagues, with Kirchner coaching the German men’s team and Gross being an assistant for the women at the 2014 Olympics, before Gross took an offer last summer to lead the Russian men’s team (after being “demoted” to the IBU Cup by the German Ski Federation).
“It’s difficult to even pick the six best athletes for the World Cup,” Gross had told German newspaper FAZ in an interview published on Friday, just before Shipulin’s sprint victory. “I was extremely surprised in September when I watched the Russian championships for the first time, with more than 100 athletes. There is a giant talent pool … My target is the Olympic Games in 2018.”
Norway opted to rest its usual starters Tarjei Bø and Emil Hegle Svendsen for the relay on Sunday, instead starting veteran Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Lars Helge Birkeland, Johannes Thingnes Bø, and Erlend Bjøntegaard.
“They married and went on vacation,” Johannes Bø joked during the press conference when asked about the absence of his brother Tarjei and Svendsen.
Thus it fell to the relatively inexperienced Bjøntegaard to anchor the team. Bø tagged him with a 29.2-second lead over Russia, and 33.5 seconds ahead of Germany, with Shipulin and Schempp chasing after him.
“Now it’s becoming really exciting. I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of Bjøntegaard right now,” Germany’s third-leg Arnd Peiffer said during an interview with ARD while the race was still going on. “I think he has a lot of stress now, and I am curious what happens.”
But facing this big challenge, Bjøntegaard did a good job skiing a fast first loop to return to the range still in first and only needing two spares in his prone shooting. Yet this still reduced his lead to 6.8 seconds over Schempp, who had shot clean, and 14.9 seconds to Shipulin, who required one spare.
In the final standing shooting, the Norwegian needed two more spare rounds, while Shipulin and Schempp both remained clean and left the range just 0.5 seconds apart. They skied together until the finishing sprint, with Bjøntegaard securing the third place on the podium, 22.9 seconds after Russia, but securely ahead of the rest of the field.
“With Emil and Tarjei, two of our best athletes were not in the relay,” Johannes Thingnes Bø said during the press conference. “I was hoping that we could make the podium, and we did. A perfect race for everyone on the team. Erlend and Lars Helge were called up last minute, but they were relaxed, and third place is good. It’s not easy for Erlend to go out with Schempp and Shipulin.”
Behind Norway, Austria, with Sven Grossegger, Julian Eberhard, Simon Eder, and Dominik Landertinger, finished fourth (+1:01.7), with one penalty and 11 spare rounds.
“Better shooting,” Simon Eder told the IBU in a video interview when questioned what it would have taken to reach the podium. “We always have the extra [penalty] loop. It’s not easy, it happens so fast. But we hope to manage it at the World Champs without it.”
“The running shape is very good in the Austrian team,” Landertinger added. “And if the shooting is a little bit better we can make the podium.”
France, starting without World Cup leader Martin Fourcade with a lineup of his older brother Simon Fourcade, Quentin Fillion Maillet, Simon Desthieux, and Jean Guillaume Beatrix, placed fifth (+1:39.3), with no penalties and 11 spares.
U.S. Ties Season-Best 6th; Canada 11th
On the last leg, Beatrix narrowly won out a race against American Sean Doherty, who crossed the finish less than five seconds later in sixth place, 1:43.7 behind the winners. The U.S. ended up with one penalty and 13 spares, and tied its season-best result after having achieved sixth in the relay a week ago in Ruhpolding, Germany.
The Americans started the race in bib 6 with their now-usual lineup of Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke, Leif Nordgren, and Doherty, the same starters they had used at the World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, where the U.S. placed 14th in the men’s relay.
Bailey briefly took the lead on the loop out of the arena, before two misses in his prone shooting stage required spare rounds and set him back to 15th, but still within 15.5 seconds out of the lead. With another spare in his standing stage, he still moved up five positions, and with the second-fastest, first-leg course time on his final loop, he tagged off in seventh, 20.8 seconds behind Germany’s Lesser.
Burke held that position throughout his first loop, but two misses in the prone stage set him back. In the standing shooting, he used all three spare rounds to avoid the penalty lap, falling back to 14th before he made up ground again with a fast last loop (third-best course time) to tag Nordgren in ninth (+1:04.3).
“Today proved that last week was not a fluke,” Burke said in a US Biathlon press release. “We are happy to be right in the mix with the ‘big’ biathlon nations but we still know that we are capable of more.”
“I got the tag from Tim right with the Czech Republic,” Nordgren wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “For all of the first loop I just focused on staying nice and relaxed, trying to conserve as much energy as possible. Prone I wanted to be pretty aggressive and it worked out well.”
After a clean prone shooting, Nordgren left the range in seventh place, virtually tied with a few other teams.
“The second loop I left the range with Eder from Austria, again I was just tucked in with him saving energy,” Nordgren recalled. “Although I had super great skis today, so eventually on the downhill I put in a good transition and was pushing towards the French team in front of us.”
After using two spare rounds in his standing stage, Nordgren still managed to move up to sixth place as some other teams, such as Italy and Switzerland, struggled on this leg, and handed off 1:04.5 minutes behind the leaders — about the same gap he had when he started.
“Standing was the only disappointing part about my race today, it was a bummer to have two mistakes, but I didn’t lose any places and I was quick with the extras,” Nordgren wrote. “I was surprised on the third loop, I actually had some energy to push. Eventually France passed me and got a small gap I couldn’t close.”
Doherty kept the team in sixth on his first loop and through the first prone shooting, which he cleaned, reducing his gap to first by about ten seconds.
“The conditions today were ideal,” Doherty wrote in an email. “The course was in great shape and there was no wind. The altitude here adds to the difficulty, but I also pushed hard on the second loop and I did not really hold it together on the range as I wish I could have.”
By the final standing shooting he had moved to fifth, and was on the range behind Austria, with France nearby and Slovakia further behind. Austria’s Landertinger shot clean and finished first, while Doherty caused a penalty lap. But he only lost one position and still had France’s Beatrix in sight who had needed three spares.
Doherty skied a fast final loop, almost closing a 20-second gap again, finishing sixth, 4.4 seconds behind France in fifth and 1:43.7 behind Russia.
“I am a little bummed to have had that penalty because I was excited to fight for 5th. But overall 6th was secure,” Doherty wrote.
“I am happy with another strong result,” Doherty added in the US Biathlon press release. “We were in the mix the whole time and even though I did not shoot my best the team did well. We are all looking forward to the next relay.”
“As a team I think we’re happy with this race, but it was nowhere near a perfect race for us,” Nordgren wrote. “We still have more to give and will be looking for more in the relays to come.”
Canada in bib 7 chose a lineup of Christian Gow, Nathan Smith, Macx Davies, and Scott Gow. Brendan Green had to sit out the relay because of back issues following his collision in Saturday’s pursuit, “which did not improve until race time,” according to Biathlon Canada head coach Matthias Ahrens. “We had to put Scott Gow in his place,” Ahrens wrote in an email.
Younger brother Christian Gow jumped out to the lead after cleaning the initial prone stage, but on the next loop he lost some ground, crossing the next timing point in 11th, just 10 seconds out of first. After he required two spare rounds in his standing stage, Christian lost additional time to the leaders, but kept his position in the field, tagging off to Smith in 11th (+1:08.3).
Smith, currently the highest-ranked Canadian in the overall World Cup, cleaned both stages for his first 100-percent shooting in a race this season. Reflecting on his race in an email, he said his ski shape was off — and it has been for the last couple days. Unable to move up in the field, he tagged Davies in 11th (+1:07.7).
“I wanted to make up some spots and get our team up to the top 10. I knew it would mean some really good shooting,” Smith wrote in an email. “I’m really happy to finally have my first clean of the winter, especially after poor shooting in the other two races this weekend. On the other hand my skiing hasn’t been where it should for the last two weeks. I’m not sure why, I went from my best ski shape to my worst ski shape in literally 3 days. I have been struggling with back pain after a hard downhill crash in the Ruhpolding 20 km.”
Davies went on to clean his prone stage and move into 10th, reducing the gap to the leaders to 41 seconds. In standing, he needed all three spares, which caused him to lose some time. Overall Davies skied the second-best course time of his leg (only behind Norway’s Bø), and handed off to Scott Gow in 10th place (+1:39.0).
On the anchor leg, Scott needed two spares in his prone stage and one in standing, with Estonia’s anchor Ermits Kalev still passing him on the final loop. The Canadian crossed the finish in 11th, 5.7 seconds behind Estonia and 2:28.9 minutes behind Russia.
Combined, the team had no penalty and required just eight spares. But 11th wasn’t exactly close to their season best: the Canadians finished sixth in Hochfilzen, Austria and 10th last week in Ruhpolding.
“There were some good aspects of our relay: Christian’s first prone was amazing, my shooting, and Macx’s skiing,” Smith wrote. “Overall though I would say unfortunately it was not a good relay. A good race for us is top 6. The potential for a medal is there if everyone can put together their best race on the same day. Easier said than done.”
The Biathlon World Cup resumes in two weeks on Canada’s home turf in Canmore, Alberta, with sprints on Thursday, Feb. 4 and Friday, Feb. 5, followed by mass starts on Saturday, Feb. 6, and single-mixed (1 woman, 1 man) and mixed (2 women, 2 men) relays on Sunday, Feb. 7.
“I’m going to North America in a good mood,” Germany’s Peiffer said at the press conference. “The last three weeks were really exhausting. Now I had a good week here in Antholz, and I am looking forward to go to Canmore. I have never been there before. Maybe not as many [spectators] as in Ruhpolding or Antholz, but it’s nice to see a new place for biathlon.”
“I will be in Romania for my last Junior World Championships,” Sean Doherty, 20, wrote, which will take place in Cheile Gradistei (Brasov, Romania) from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2. “So I will only be attending the Presque Isle World Cup [after Canmore].”
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting