When the IBU World Cup kicks off in Östersund, Sweden, on Sunday, it will feel much the same like any other year – after all, the northern city has hosted several of the last biathlon openers. But that first race will feel decidedly different as well. For the first time, Östersund is hosting not only three individual races for both men and women, but also a mixed relay, which will be held a week earlier than usual; the traditional individual, sprint, and pursuit races will still be held at their usual times midweek and during the first weekend of December, stretching the race series for a few extra days.
The change is being embraced by athletes; American Sara Studebaker, for example, said that it would help take the nerves off to start with a relay instead of the traditional 15 or 20 k individual races, arguably the hardest format on the schedule.
If last year’s results are any indication, then Russia is the team to look out for in that opening race. Not only did they win both the men’s and women’s Nations Cup trophies, but they also won the first mixed relay of the 2011/12 season and the mixed relay total score. Here’s more to watch as the World Cup gets under way: the top five teams, the North Americans, and a few more individual contenders
Thinking back on last season, you might not automatically think, Russia! The two Nations Cup wins were a sort of quiet domination: Russia’s top man in the overall standings was Anton Shipulin in eighth place, and the top woman Olga Zaitseva in sixth, and the two only combined for four victories.
But Russia showed impressive depth on its men’s team. Andrei Makoveev, Evgeniy Garanichev, and Evgeny Ustyugov ranked 11th through 13th in the total score and Dmitry Malyshko ended up in 19th. Those four combined for two wins and five more podiums. Furthermore, team captain Ivan Tcherezov, a two-time Olympian and seven-time World Cup winner, missed last season after breaking his leg and going through some complex surgeries. He had a metal plate removed from his leg in May and started training with the team again a month later.
To put it shortly, the roster of the Russian men’s team is dizzying. There’s also a number of other men who have or could pop a podium: Alexey Volkov, Timofey Lapshin, Maxim Maksimov, and Maxim Tchoudov. Several young racers have made the step up to the senior team, including 2012 Continental Champion Alexander Loginov and four-time World Junior Champion Maxim Tsvetkov. Plus, former World Junior medalist in cross country, Alexey Slepov, has converted to biathlon and won a test race at Sochi in March, after just one year in the sport.
Russia’s win in the women’s Nations Cup was more surprising, as their women’s team came into last season as an unknown quantity. They had performed poorly the year before, their coach had been sacked, and the federation had made the extremely out-of-character decision to bring in a European coach, Wolfgang Pichler. The 2012 win came down to the last race, with Russia eking out a five-point victory over Germany.
The team had won a single relay and just one woman besides Zaitseva hit the podium. But Olga Vilukhina did so at an opportune time, taking bronze in the pursuit at World Championships. Svetlana Sleptsova, who carries the weight of expectation as she has already been lauded as Russia’s next great female biathlete, had another so-so-season; she and Anna Bogaliy-Titovets finished 16th and 18th in the total score. Bogaliy-Titovets has now retired, so the team is hoping that Ekaterina Glazyrina, Iana Romanova, or one of the other women will step up.
“We will fight for the Nations Cup again,” Pichler recently told the IBU in an interview, “we will simply fight for victory in every race.” But while some success is guaranteed, the Russians will certainly have to fight for another win.
While German fans are surely hoping that the women can avenge their close loss in the Nations Cup, Andrea Henkel told FasterSkier that this year will be different for the team. Of course the biggest news is that Magdalena Neuner retired after winning the overall World Cup title last season. But Henkel, who ended up eight in the total score, is looking to get on the podium consistently, and has a strong ally in Tina Bachmann, who finished 14th.
Youngsters Franziska Hildebrand and Miriam Gössner made the top 30, and Germany will likely still have a strong relay team. The most interesting addition is Olympic gold medalist Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle, who took up biathlon this spring. She won the team’s summer testing and acquitted herself well at German rollerski championships this fall, using three spare rounds in prone and the shooting perfectly in standing to help Michael Greis and Florian Graf to a mixed relay victory.
On the men’s side, Germany finished third in the standings, led by Andreas Birnbacher and Arnd Peiffer in third and fourth in the total score. There were high expectations placed on Peiffer, and over the course of 2012 it often seemed like he couldn’t handle the pressure, particularly at World Championships. Peiffer nonetheless won two races and stood on the podium five more times. Birnbacher, on the other hand, excelled particularly in that tough head-to-head racing, winning three mass starts and a pursuit.
Florian Graf and Simon Schempp should provide good relay legs for the team, while veteran and fan favorite Michael Greis should be able to make a comeback after a 2012 season that was marred by injury. The men’s team has lost two-time World Cup winner Michael Rösch, who will now be representing Belgium.
The French team placed second in the men’s Nations Cup and third in the women’s division, providing a foil for Germany. On the women’s side, it was again the Maries leading the team: Marie Laure Brunet and Marie Dorin Habert. Both are relatively young, but have already been notching top finishes for several years. Brunet has at times seemed like an overall title contender, but placed seventh in the total score, while Dorin Habert was ninth. While neither won a race in 2012, together with Anais Bescond and Sophie Boilley they put together an impressive relay record, winning the Antholz relay and never finishing off the podium all season.
The men’s team was of course led by Martin Fourcade, the winner of the World Cup total score. It was a breakout season for not only him, but also his brother, Simon, who wound up fifth; in the World Championships individual, the only race in Ruhpolding that Martin did not win, Simon took silver. In the middle of the season, Simon Fourcade went six straight races finishing no worse than fourth. The brothers, who train together, are primed for 2013.
With results like that, it’s easy to say that France could get away with being the Fourcade show. But it isn’t. Alexis Boeuf had five top-ten performances, and Jean Guillaume Beatrix landed 29th in the total score despite starting less than 80 % of the races. 2010 Olympic gold medalist Vincent Jay had little success, but is back this year hoping to do better. As a team, the French men almost matched the women’s success, winning one relay and only missing the podium once.
Surprisingly, Norway finished fourth in both the men’s and women’s Nations Cup scores, which can certainly be considered a disappointment. Coming off a 2011 season in which Tarjei Bø, Emil Hegle Svendsen, Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Lars Berger, Tora Berger, and Ann Kristin Flatland all won World Cups, what happened?
On the men’s team, Bø couldn’t keep up the pace that left him with the overall World Cup title in 2011, but Svendsen tried his mightiest to take his place, ending up just 65 points behind Fourcade in the standings and wearing the yellow bib at several points. Although he didn’t dominate as he had when he won the World Cup in 2010, Svendsen did take four wins. Bjørndalen, meanwhile, proved that even aging kings can still impress as he picked up a win of his own.
Bø’s season isn’t looking good at the moment and it would be surprising if Bjørndalen improved much at this point in his career, but Svendsen can be expected to be at the top of the results sheet consistently again this season. Lars Berger had lasik surgery this summer, which he thinks will improve his notoriously poor shooting, and Bø’s younger brother Johannes Thingnes Bø has also been named to the national team after stunning at World Juniors last year with two victories.
On the women’s side, Flatland sat out 2012 to have a baby, which may partly explain the women’s slip in the standings. But her place was arguably filled by Synnøve Solemdal, who had a breakout year and snagged six top-tens. Elise Ringen finished in the top ten just once, and Norway’s relays – which were quite successful – relied heavily on Tora Berger’s finishing speed. She always obliged by skiing strong anchor legs, to go along with her three regular-season wins and her World Championship in the individual. With Neuner retired, look for Berger to try to climb her way from third up to the top of the overall standings this year.
In the men’s races, the next team to watch for is obviously Sweden. They’re coming off their best season in years, and nothing could capture their success better than the results sheets from World Championships: Carl Johan Bergman capped off the best season of his life with two medals, bronze in the sprint and silver in the pursuit, and then Bjorn Ferry took silver and Fredrik Lindstrom bronze in the mass start. In fact, no other team had as many individual medalists in Ruhpolding.
So while the women’s team reels from the retirement of Helena Ekholm, who won some hardware of her own at World Championships, the men be fighting to climb their way further towards the top top.
Ukraine and Belarus
In the women’s races, the fifth spot last year went to Belarus, based almost entirely on the performance of Darya Domracheva, who was the runner-up to Neuner in the total score. Ukraine, which finished sixth, traditionally has better relays and also features a deeper roster: Vita Semerenko won bronze in the sprint at World Championships, her twin sister Valj landed 22nd in the overall standings, and Natalya Burdyga edged her out in 21st. With no retirements from either team’s top athletes, they’ll likely be battling each other again this season.
The U.S. had a strong season, placing ninth in the men’s Nations Cup and eleventh in the women’s; combined, they had a top-ten-worthy team across the board.
Susan Dunklee’s fifth place performance in the individual race at World Championships buoyed the women to new heights, while Sara Studebaker was left frustrated with a single top-20 finish – something that, a few years ago, would have topped her resume. Annelies Cook broke into the top-40 and Lanny Barnes placed 37th at World Championships. Those four are likely to be selected as the World Cup squad this year, but Lanny’s twin Tracy Barnes-Colliander is looking to climb back onto the top circuit as well. The biggest change on the team has been the retirement of 2010 Olympian Laura Spector.
For the men, the already-strong team gained momentum when Russell Currier snagged a few top-tens, joining Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, and Jay Hakkinen in that regard. Bailey in particular had a strong season, finishing a best-ever 14th in the total score, while Burke seemed to rebound from the compartment syndrome woes that marred his 2011 season and placed 20th in the total score. He had the best performance of the season, placing fourth in a World Cup sprint in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Leif Nordgren will be looking to improve on his last season and Jeremy Teela hopes to get back on the World Cup, so the men’s team has plenty of depth.
The Canadians finished a bit further down in the Nations Cup standings, due to two things: less depth than the Americans, especially on the men’s side, and because they skipped a weekend of World Cup racing and its associated points.
Like the Americans, the Canadian men seemed to be gaining momentum, with JP Le Guellec and Brendan Green trading the position of team leader back and forth throughout the season. Unfortunately, the fun stopped when Green threw out his back in Oslo; he’s had surgery, but is unlikely to see World Cup action until late this season, if at all. Le Guellec had a strong end to the season, placing 14th in the sprint at World Championships and then eighth the following weekend in Khanty-Mansiysk, and told FasterSkier that he’s finally feeling like he has completely recovered from a case of mono. He’ll be helped out by Scott Perras, Nathan Smith and Marc-André Bédard, as well as younger team members Scott Gow and 2012 World Junior Champion Kurtis Wenzel.
The women’s team saw the resurgence of Zina Kocher, who went from having her worst season in 2011 to repeatedly hitting the top ten in 2012. This year, she told FasterSkier, she’s hoping to make a return to the podium for the first time in a few years. Right there with her will be Megan Imrie, who had two top-20 results and several strong relay legs. After that, things get a little scarce; the next logical starter is Megan Heinicke, who is based in Germany and does not train with the team, or Rosanna Crawford. There are also several younger racers like Yolaine Oddou, who competed at World Championships, but Canadian High Performance Director Chris Lindsay has said that he would rather bring a small team than fill the roster with women who aren’t ready for the World Cup.
A Few More Individuals
While their teams aren’t particularly strong, there are a few more individuals who stand out. On the women’s side, Kaisa Makarainen of Finland is almost certainly a sure bet: when she won the overall World Cup title in 2011, she kicked things off with wins in Östersund. Olympic gold medalist Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia didn’t do as well in 2012, but in the absence of Neuner and Ekholm is likely to climb the podium again as well. She started off her pre-season with a time trial victory in Canmore.
There are many more men capable of winning, where the women’s field often sees the same leaders over and over again. That was in evidence at World Championships, where the only man besides Fourcade to win a race was Jakov Fak of Slovenia. While he had a strong background, he had never won a race and certainly wouldn’t have been a predictable choice for World Champion.
In that same race, Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic placed third. This year, Soukup is a question mark – he recently had a horrific bike accident that left him hospitalized in bad shape. Luckily for the Czechs, Michal Slesingr also had a podium in 2012, so they’re still looking good. Benjamin Weger of Switzerland, Lukas Hofer of Italy, and Daniel Mesotitsch or any of his Austrian teammates could also easily pop a podium sometime during the season.
2012 Nations Cup Scores: Women, Men, and Combined
(The combined score is not calculated by the IBU nor does it hold any honor, but we thought it was interesting.)
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