The women’s International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup resumed in Oberhof, Germany, on Wednesday with the women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay. Twenty centimeters of fresh snow made for difficult skiing on a foggy, warmer day than in training on Tuesday, and on top of that, Oberhof is known as a notoriously hard shooting venue. The large-climb profile of Oberhof and a long, flat section leading into the range contrasts that of several other World Cup stops.
The leading positions changed several times throughout the race, with early leaders Russia and Finland falling out of contention with two many penalty loops apiece.
The eventual winners, the Czech Republic, with Eva Puskarcikova, Gabriela Soukalova, Jitka Landova, and Veronika Vitkova, used seven spares to claim the victory, one less than runner-up France (with Marine Bolliet, Marie Dorin Habert, Justine Braisaz, and Anais Bescond), which used eight. The Czech team was consistent throughout the day with none of its athletes skiing significantly quicker or slower than the others, which put them on pace for the win in 1:16:56, 8.6 seconds ahead of France.
Sixth after the first leg with Puskarcikova, who used just one spare, Soukalova skied the team to third with a single spare as well, Landova brought them one step closer in second with two spares, and Vitkova used three spares to seal the win.
“The final shooting was quite hard as I was nervous; but I really wanted to win,” Vitkova told the IBU.
“I was not sure about my shape for the first race after Christmas,” Soukalova said. “Early in the race, I had a lot of energy but on the last loop, I was so tired; I just wanted to see the finish line.”
During the third leg, it seemed Ukraine, the Olympic relay champions, had a strong hold on the first position with Olga Abramova maintaining their lead until the final exchange. The Czech Republic followed came through the exchange in second, 8.3 seconds back, followed by France, 11.9 behind Ukraine.
Vitkova led into the first prone stage and cleaned with six shots, but France’s anchor Anais Bescond cleaned quickly as well to chase her out of the stadium. Ukraine’s Iryna Varvynets used one spare to leave the range in third, followed by Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff, who also used one spare and headed out on her second lap in fourth, 34 seconds after Vitkova.
In the final standing, both Vitkova and Bescond used two spare rounds to leave the range together Eckhoff suffered a penalty lap, while Varvynets missed just one to chase the leaders from 37 seconds behind in third. However, she slowed on her last lap and was overtaken by three women — Darya Domracheva of Belarus, Eckhoff, and Italy’s Karin Oberhofer respectively — to finish sixth for Ukraine.
At the front of the race, Vitkova pulled away from Bescond with about 2 k remaining to the finish, and secured the win by nearly nine seconds. Domracheva brought Belarus from 10th to third, passing Varvynets in the final 500 meters.
France welcomed back Marie Dorin Habert to her first World Cup race since giving birth to her first child this summer.
“I have only had two national races before this; I did not expect my form to be so good,” she said in a press conference following relay.
France’s second skier, Habert used a single spare to bring her team back within less than a second of the leading Ukrainian team, which had perfect shooting from its first two skiers, Anastasiya Merkushyna and Valj Semerenko.
Darya Domracheva had the biggest individual leg of the day, lifting Belarus to the podium after Nadzeya Pisareva’s penalty on the third leg put the team in 10th. Domracheva used two spares and skied the fastest course time on the last leg to close 38 seconds and place third overall, 1:06.8 behind the winners.
Norway saved their strongest woman for last. With her team in fifth, Eckhoff took over with an aggressive start to her race. Coming into the standing shooting, Eckhoff was within range of the leaders, but fighting the wind, she used her three spares and still incurred a penalty loop. Eckhoff skied a strong final lap, passing Italy and Ukraine, but was unable to hold onto Domracheva. Norway took fourth, 1:12.7 behind the Czech Republic.
Italy led early in the first leg with Dorothea Wierer, who shot clean, but dropped to seventh with second-leg Lisa Vittozzi and remained in seventh, and finally fifth. After catching Varvynets coming into the stadium, Oberhofer could not hold off Eckhoff and dropped to fifth, 1 second behind Norway and 1:13.7 after the winners. Ukraine was another 5.3 seconds back in sixth.
Canada, the lone North American women’s relay, put themselves in the mix in early on with Megan Heinicke, who had perfect shooting and the ninth-fastest course time of the first leg. She tagged teammate Julia Ransom in fifth, 8.8 seconds behind the leaders.
Ransom skied with a quick tempo in the warm-and-slushy conditions, and held onto the leaders for her first lap. Ransom needed just one spare in standing to hit her 10 targets and complete her leg, tagging Emma Lunder in 10th.
“Megan rocked the first lap!” Ransom wrote in an email. “Shooting felt solid out there and the first ski lap was filled with adrenaline and excitement. Flying out [to Oberhof] only a few days ago, I still felt the effects of jet lag and died a little on the other two laps. However I am confident that the body will be back in form for the sprint.”
Nearly 1:50 behind the leaders, Lunder was troubled by a change in wind since her pre-race zero and skied two penalty laps after prone. She used three more spares in standing, for a total of six, and tagged Zina Kocher in 16th, nearly five minutes back.
In an email, Lunder explained these mistakes only motivated her to perform better in Friday’s sprint.
“I like the course, I feel strong, and with a bit of extra focus on the range in training tomorrow, I’m certain I can perform to my potential,” she wrote, adding that the slushy conditions and the difficult climbs suit her strengths.
The team’s veteran, Kocher, used six spares (three in each stage) before being lapped on the final loop and taken out of the race.
“I had to focus on doing my job and make the best of it,” she explained in an email.
Three of the Canadian women flew into Oberhof on Monday night, and Kocher explained that jet lag after the holidays could have been a factor in their performance.
“Today’s relay was just a blip in the scheme of things,” Ransom wrote. “It’s incredibly hard to get four people to be ‘on’ all at the same time and it just didn’t happen for us. But now that the cobwebs are out, I believe that all of us ladies will have some great performances coming up.”
The men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay takes place in Oberhof on Thursday at 14:15 CET.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting