Kaisa Mäkäräinen skied in a league of her own on Saturday.
The five biathletes currently leading the International Biathlon Union (IBU) women’s overall standings also occupied the top five of Saturday’s 7.5-kilometer sprint in Ruhpolding, Germany. But when Mäkäräinen shoots clean in a race, even those fast skiers cannot keep up with “the Finnish flash,” as an announcer for German TV broadcaster ARD dubbed her, as she finished in 20:51.8 minutes for her first World Cup win of the season and 20th victory of her career.
The Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová came closest (+22.0, with no penalties), knocking the German home-crowd favorite Laura Dahlmeier to third (+30.1 with no penalties).
“It was almost a perfect race,” Mäkäräinen told ARD after. “I didn’t feel super, super strong today, even though I had good skis and ski times, but it was quite the slow snow and really deep and tricky.“
“I was really tired in the finish because there are no places where you can rest, you have to work all the time here,” she added during the press conference.
While the course conditions weren’t exactly easy for Mäkäräinen, they were at least as difficult for her competitors, who might not have caught the Finn even if she had incurred a penalty.
In light snowfall and wind, the competitors nevertheless had to shoot near-flawlessly to be at the top on Saturday, which eight of the top 10, including all of the podium finishers, achieved. Mäkäräinen hit all of her targets for the first time in an individual race since almost a year ago at the same venue, also in a World Cup sprint in Ruhpolding.
“Quite slow, I took it like one shot at a time,” she said of her approach to ARD. “But in standing I feel better, especially after shooting clean there in the relay [on Thursday].“
Asked what was more important to her, winning the “yellow bib” of the overall World Cup (Total Score) leader or a medal at the upcoming IBU World Championships, she had to laugh.
“Both!” Mäkäräinen exclaimed. “Both! I would be happy with both, or one of them. It’s really hard competitions right now compared to last year, so every day has to be a good day.”
For now, Koukalová defended the yellow bib against her closest rivals, but explained in the press conference that this was not exactly her main goal for the year.
“Everybody asks me about the yellow bib all the time,” Koukalová said. “But I have to say again, this year it is not the main goal of the season to be the first one in Total Score. I try to focus for the World Championship in Hochfilzen [next month].”
She added that it was a good decision to start in a later start group as “conditions were getting better and better. It was very nice to ski on faster snow than for the first athletes.”
“It’s fun to race in front of this audience, to fully attack,” Dahlmeier told ARD. “You could see that Kaisa is in a bit of a different league in terms of ski speed. I couldn’t touch that today, but I still tried to give it my best. So I am super happy about another position on the podium.”
Starting late in the race with bib 75, France’s Marie Dorin Habert challenged for the podium, but with a miss in her standing stage (0+1) while the top three stayed clean, she came up 15.5 seconds short (no thanks to the 20-30 seconds it takes to ski through the 150-meter penalty lap) in fourth place (+48.6).
Also slated to start Sunday’s pursuit within a minute behind Mäkäräinen will be Italy’s Dorothea Wierer, who took fifth (+57.7) on Saturday with clean shooting, as well as Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand, who also cleaned for sixth place (+59.8).
“Of course it’s good, [shooting] zero-zero,” Wierer told IBU TV in a post-race interview. “But on the track I’m really not in a good shape at the moment. I don’t know what happened. I feel like I would be sick, but I’m not … [For the pursuit on Sunday] we have to shoot four times zero, if not Kaisa is really really fast at the moment. We have to hope that she has some mistakes and we [don’t], but that’s biathlon.”
Four North Americans onto the Pursuit
Susan Dunklee once again led the North American woman in the sprint in 33rd (+2:13.5), despite a penalty in each of her shooting stages (1+1). She had the 29th-fastest time on the range, and skied the 20th-ranked overall course time, including a very fast first loop where she skied right behind Koukalová, who was entering her second loop and ultimately posted the third-fastest course time of the day.
“I put myself in the race right from the start, taking advantage of a great ride behind Gabi for a loop,” Dunklee said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “Unfortunately, my pace fell off in the loops after that and my range performance was mediocre.
“I will have a great pack of athletes within two seconds ahead of me to chase tomorrow,” she added, referencing experienced competitors such as Germany’s Franziska Preuss (who placed 31st on Saturday, +2:12.8) and Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko (30th, +2:11.8).
Canada’s Rosanna Crawford finished 55th (+2:54.0) with one standing penalty (0+1), also shooting fast with the 19th-ranked range time, but still searching for her ski speed from last season with the 78th-ranked course time.
Her Biathlon Canada teammate Megan Tandy, who lives and trains near Ruhpolding for part of the season, finished her race just one position and 0.3 seconds behind in 56th (0+1, +2:54.3).
Returning to the World Cup after a training block at home in Canmore, Alberta, skipping the races in Oberhof last week, the third Canadian Julia Ransom finished 60th (+3:07.2), also with one standing penalty (0+1) to make the top-60 cutoff for the pursuit.
Teammate Emma Lunder missed qualifying for the pursuit in 89th (3+0, +4:21.7).
Also missing the top 60 was Americans Joanne Reid in 71st place (0+2, +3:25.2), Clare Egan who was 77th (2+1, +3:51.0), and Maddie Phaneuf who finished in 94th place (0+2, +4:36.5).
“Well…feeling like garbage on the skis doesn’t help with racing fast haha!” Phaneuf commented on her race on Facebook. “Not super happy with my shooting, 0,2 and ended up 94th. No Pursuit for me tomorrow. But on the bright side, I have clean laundry, currently drinking a glass of wine, and my standing shooting was the 8th fastest of the day! Next stop…Antholz, Italy on Monday.”
It was the first World Cup week of the season for Phaneuf, who also raced the second leg of the U.S. women’s relay, which finished 17th on Thursday. She was called up after posting 10th- and 12th-place IBU Cup finishes earlier this month. She saw her first World Cup start last season on U.S. soil in Presque Isle, Maine, finishing 65th in the sprint.