A biathlon relay with athletes skiing around and through a huge soccer arena in a city with no snow seems like a crazy idea.
But in the 1990s, the German cross-country skier and biathlete Herbert Fritzenwenger, who had retired from active sports after competing in the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games, believed there had to be some way to make biathlon even more attractive for viewers. He wanted to mix sports and entertainment bringing the sport out of the forest and closer to the people, the way city sprints are now doing it for cross-country. He also believed a discipline where women and men compete together would be more interesting to watch.
Thus the World Team Challenge was born, a two-person mixed relay invitational, with each team representing a country. In 2002, Frizenwenger took the next step to bring that race to an even higher level of awareness. Together with the then-manager of first-league soccer team Schalke 04, he moved the event to the team’s newly constructed Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Only problem: The arena, which features a retractable roof, is located in a flat region of the country far away from any mountain range with predictable snowfall. But using manmade snow from a nearby ski hall to create a course just for this race every year the concept instantly worked, and has drawn some of the biggest crowds for any biathlon event in the world ever since.
Now in its 15th year, the “Biathlon auf Schalke” race has become a Christmas holiday break tradition on TV in Germany, also broadcast live in several other countries. Many biathletes love the event for its atmosphere in front of 42,000 raucous fans in the arena, and as an interesting way to keep the race shape sharp during the break.
This year’s edition took place on Wednesday evening, and it was the first time a Canadian relay was at the start, with Megan Tandy and Macx Davies teaming up to represent Canada in a show event that combines a mass start with a pursuit after a short “halftime” intermission.
In both races, the Canadian pair quickly incurred a number of penalty laps (unlike in other relays the athletes are not allowed to use spares in the fast-paced competition) and slipped to the back of the field of 10 teams, tagging off to the partner after each shooting stage to chase once more over the 1.3-kilometer course around the arena.
But Davies finished the event to huge cheers, with the audience elated by a victory of the home teams seemingly not wanting the show to be over yet, and screaming until he had crossed the line.
“The atmosphere was GREAT!!!” Davies wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Very loud and very fun crowd. They even cheered most of our shootings! (When we were the only ones in the range.) It was amazing to ski through the tunnel the last time to such a big ROAR from the stadium.”
The arena was rocking particularly loudly as Germany’s fan-favorite Simon Schempp entered the finishing stretch for his first victory at Schalke with his partner Vanessa Hinz, crossing the line in a time of 33:11.4 minutes (with four penalties).
Originally, the German coaches hadn’t selected Hinz to compete at Schalke, but she replaced her sick teammate, Franziska Preuss, to team up with Schempp. Last year, Hinz and Schempp had placed third in the World Team Challenge, with Hinz also subbing in at the last moment. This year, it was their time on the top of the podium.
“Yeah, this is pretty crazy,” Schempp told German TV broadcaster ZDF after the race, in an interview that was heard throughout the arena. “That must be how soccer players feel every week. The atmosphere is gigantic. This is much more extreme than in a biathlon arena because there is a roof. I don’t know how many exactly, but I believe 40,000 people are here and it’s just crazy fun. [Cheers in the arena] You can hear it, craziness.”
The announcer asked Hinz how she stayed so calm in front of her home crowd on the shooting range.
“That’s what we do all year, but in front of such an audience your knees get weak,” she said. “It’s just brutal. We just want to say many thanks, because to experience something like this is unique.”
The audience in the arena was happy to hear that, erupting in huge cheers again. Germany last won the event in 2013 with Laura Dahlmeier and Florian Graf. Dahlmeier, the current women’s overall IBU World Cup leader, took a break this year, as did the defending World Team Challenge champions Marie Dorin Habert and Martin Fourcade of France.
Despite usually entering multiple teams at Schalke, Germany had not been able to claim first and second on the podium — until this year, which sent the arena into frenzy.
For Germany’s second team, Franziska Hildebrand teamed up with Erik Lesser for the second-straight year after the duo finished seventh in 2015. They came close to the overall victory this time, winning the mass start by 15 seconds ahead of Hinz and Schempp, and later staying in their vicinity throughout the pursuit. But Lesser missed his final standing shot when he still had a small chance to catch up to Schempp in first.
“Of course [the atmosphere] is pushing me,” Hildebrand had told ZDF at halftime, after the mass start. “It’s such an incredible audience. It’s so beautiful when you come into the arena as a German athlete and experience such a loud support. That is always a total buzz, a breathtaking moment.”
On the first loop of the pursuit Lesser broke his pole after stepping on it, and did not receive a replacement until after the exchange to Hildebrand.
“For the shooting I don’t need a pole, and afterwards that half-a-second I lost I can deal with that, before someone runs over and probably breaks his foot,” he told ZDF after the race, causing a big laughter in the arena. “Such a great atmosphere. The spectators are really picking it up. And that’s why I am here.”
At times more than a minute ahead of the field, the German teams made the race relatively close again with two laps to go, when standing next to each other both Hinz and Hildebrand shot two penalties despite their otherwise almost-flawless shooting performances.
The third place on the podium went to Russia’s Olga Podchufarova and Alexey Volkov (who won gold with the men’s relay at the 2014 Olympics), narrowly edging out France’s Anaïs Bescond and Jean-Guillaume Béatrix (+42.6), Austria’s Julia Schwaiger and Simon Eder (+43.0) and Norway’s husband-and-wife team of Fanny Horn Birkeland and Lars Helge Birkeland (+43.3) on the final loop and finishing sprint.
Long Day on a Challenging Course
Originally, Tandy — who trains and lives in Germany for part of the year — had planned on racing with Biathlon Canada teammate Nathan Smith, but Smith returned to Canada after struggling in the initial World Cup races of the season with unclear symptoms, which he has since been trying to resolve.
“After Nathan went home I was talking with Megan and [coach] Matthias Ahrens about if it would be possible to race,” Davies explained. “Because I have been watching this race for a long time now and always thought it would be an awesome event to compete at, which it is! So I changed my plans so we could start an all-Canadian team and I am very happy to have raced the World Team Challenge!”
Even more so than a regular IBU World Cup, the race is held in a huge party atmosphere, with athletes skiing through a winter village park with food stands and sponsor exhibition tents lining the artificial snow track around the huge soccer arena, before entering the pitch inside the arena again via a darkened tunnel with light effects. And then having to shoot in front of the 42,000 fans, frequently with loud music blaring, and the noise level amplified indoors many times.
The World Team Challenge relay race is also executed in a special format, with one woman and one man forming a team and exchanging repeatedly, each skiing a loop of about 1.3 k and having to clean a shooting stage — or ski a shorter-than-usual 75-meter penalty lap — before tagging off to their teammate again. While one athlete was out on the track, crews of wax technicians hurried to clean and prepare the skis of the athlete who was receiving a short break. This mode of competition is fairly similar to the new single mixed relay in biathlon or the team sprint in cross-country.
It was a long race day for the athletes, with a “shootout” followed by the main event split into two “halftimes,” as the organizers called it, borrowing the terms from soccer. At first a nine-loop mass start (the women skied four loops, the men five including the final loop) on the 1.3 k course, followed by a pursuit race of that same length after just a short intermission. Thus the women had to ski about 10 k in total, while the men had to ski 13 k.
The gaps to the best team in the mass start were halved respectively, capped at a maximum of 45 seconds for the pursuit, so even the teams at the back of the field like Canada could still have a realistic shot at the podium.
Prone and standing stages interchanged with each partner shooting twice in prone and twice in standing per race, and because the loops were comparatively short and intense, like a sprint, shooting accuracy was at least as important as in regular World Cup races.
“I really like the format of this race, and think maybe it should replace the Single Mixed relay,” Davies explained in his email. “But maybe only race once, doing both was very challenging. But it is a fun event nonetheless!”
In the first few years of the Biathlon auf Schalke event, the course was a relatively flat loop, but after a redesign last year added longer climbs and a downhill section on the part of the track that meanders through the park outside the arena, it is supposed to more closely resemble what athletes would see “on the World Cup level,” as the organizers announced in a presentation before the race.
Using artificial snow mostly coming from a ski hall in the nearby city of Neuss, every loop is now 1,300 meters long, featuring 30 meters of vertical climb nicknamed the “Ruhrpott Glacier”, which added up to about 300 meters for the men and 240 for the women for the whole race day.
“It’s really not just a show race,” Schempp told broadcaster ZDF. “The legs are really burning very much. Because you have those short individual loops, but that just makes it even worse because you just ski that kilometer even faster than at normal competition speed. And because of that it is really challenging, but still is a lot of fun.”
“The course is really good for what they have,” Davies wrote in his email. ”The stadium is exciting with all the corners and I think the track is decently difficult, though below World Cup level. I think they did a better job on the downhill corner this year, because it was easier to ski, the athletes don’t like to see crashes.”
The athletes had fewer problems with that downhill section leading into a sharp-right hairpin turn than during the prior year when that was introduced, but the Czech Republic’s defending World Cup winner Gabriela Koukalová fell this year, grimacing and rubbing her thigh as she got back up. She finished seventh with her partner, Michal Šlesingr, after placing second with Ondrej Moravec in 2015.
“We just saw [a replay of] Gabriela slipping out there,” Hildebrand told ZDF when questioned about her more conservative downhill snowplow technique. “I wanted to avoid that at all costs, so I chose the safety version.”
After some years where the organizers experimented with rifles using a laser-aiming system, the athletes now use their own rifles with real ammunition on the 10-position range again, with bulletproof glass walls and an empty section behind it to protect the audience.
The difficulty of the course was once again evident during the races. Despite the indoor shooting range with almost no wind influence, many athletes who are known as good shooters incurred more misses and thus had to skate more penalty loops than they normally would in a World Cup.
“The shooting range was good, no wind, which is nice, but you are skiing very hard into the range and must shoot fast and accurately to stay with the leaders,” Davies commented.
2016 World Team Challenge Results
- Germany I (Vanessa Hinz/Simon Schemp) 33:11.4
- Germany II (Franziska Hildebrand/Erik Lesser), +16.7
- Russia (Olga Podchufarova/Alexey Volkov), +40.2
- France (Anaïs Bescond/Jean-Guillaume Béatrix), +42.6
- Austria (Julia Schwaiger/Simon Eder), +43.0
- Norway (Fanny Horn Birkeland/Lars Helge Birkeland), +43.3
- Czech Republic (Gabriela Koukalová/Michal Šlesingr), +57.6
- Italy (Dorothea Wierer/Dominik Windisch), +1:06.1
- Ukraine (Olena Pidhrushna/Serhiy Semenov), +1:20.0
- Canada (Megan Tandy/Macx Davies), +2:32.0
Tandy and Davies became the fifth North American team to be invited to the Biathlon auf Schalke event, and the first Canadian one. In 2008 and 2009, Lanny Barnes and Jay Hakkinen represented the U.S., placing ninth and sixth for the best finish by a North American team to-date. In 2010, Tracy Barnes-Coliander and Tim Burke finished 10th, and in 2012, Susan Dunklee teamed up with Burke for 10th.
“What a fun event last night,” Davies summed up his experience on his Facebook page. “I am very thankful to have been able to compete in the Biathlon World Team Challenge and I hope to be invited back to show you how good Canada can be! (Unfortunately we didn’t do very well this time…) Till next year.”
“I second everything Macx wrote ☺ ☺ ☺,” Tandy commented on his status.
Pre-Race Events with a Farewell to a Former World Champion
Before the two main races of the evening, Russia’s Volkov won a “shootout” event among all participating women and men, narrowly edging out Austria’s Eder, who is known for his fast shooting performances on the World Cup circuit, with Germany’s Hildebrand finishing third and Schempp fourth. Tandy and Davies had not qualified for the final of that event.
In this competition the athletes — while not wearing skis — were required to run up to the shooting mats and hit 20 targets as fast as possible (5 prone, 5 standing, 5 prone, 5 standing), using as many spare rounds as necessary.
The organizers also used the shootout event as a farewell to Germany’s national team member Daniel Böhm, men’s relay gold medal winner at the 2015 World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland, and silver medalist in the relay at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, who announced his retirement from biathlon earlier this month. He qualified for the final round of the shootout, where he finished fifth. Böhm plans to begin a training program to become a helicopter pilot with the German federal police.
“In the shootout I was a little bit shaky,” Böhm told ZDF. “It is something very special to compete here at Schalke. And I think there is nobody who can completely tune this out. It’s crazy what the fans are doing here, and great that I am allowed to say goodbye on this stage. That is a special honor, and now I can enjoy it looking on from the outside.”
While the IBU has adopted the mixed and single mixed relay formats in the last years as attractive new disciplines, Biathlon auf Schalke is an invitation-only race not hosted by the IBU, so there were no World Cup points to win in the event. However about €168,000 ($175,000 dollars) in prize money were awarded.
The IBU World Cup will resume next week Jan. 5-8 in Oberhof, Germany, with sprint races, pursuits and mass starts.