Even the most renowned athletes and national teams in the mixed relay on Sunday afternoon admitted they had not yet found their perfect groove in Östersund, Sweden, on the opening day of the 2017/2018 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup season.
Nevertheless it still made for an exciting race, with four teams vying for the podium on the last lap. And in the finishing stretch, anchored by veteran Emil Hegle Svendsen, the same country prevailed as in the last two seasons in the same race and at the same place: Norway.
In a time of 1:11:31.7 hours, Svendsen held off a final push from Italy’s Lukas Hofer by 5.3 seconds. Norway required 13 spare rounds on the shooting range while Italy needed just six; however Hofer incurred a penalty lap in his prone stage, momentarily falling back 30 seconds and to fourth place before returning to the top three.
Germany, anchored by Arnd Peiffer, placed third, 6.4 seconds back with 10 spare rounds and no penalties, with Peiffer managing to overtake Slovakia’s Matej Kazar on the final lap. Slovakia narrowly finished off the podium after a strong team performance with its best World Cup result in a mixed relay in five seasons. The team finished 7.7 seconds out of first, with nine spares and no penalties.
“It was a really tough fight with Lukas just behind,” Svendsen recounted of the final lap during the post-race press conference. He had used all of his spares to clean his standing stage.
“I was happy to walk away with the win. I looked back, it’s impossible not to I think, but I felt quite strong…,” he continued. “I was unsure if I should just let him come to me and then we can finish in a sprint, but I looked behind and I had about a five-second gap so I just said to myself to just go and see what happens … Always a good feeling to start the season with a victory, good for the team, good for the spirit.”
“The last lap, when I went out from the stadium, I saw Emil in front of me and tried to close the gap as fast as possible,” Hofer said at the press conference. “But it was a bit too much because he also pushed so strong, and normally he is one of the best on the last loop. I was happy to finish like this… It was a really good start into the season.”
In the mixed relay format, with a 2 x 6 + 2 x 7.5-kilometer course length, two women followed by two men hand off to one another on the track, and each can use up to three spare rounds per shooting stage to avoid a penalty lap.
This time of the year, the sun sets early in Östersund in central Sweden. In a race under floodlights with mostly calm wind conditions, Norway, with Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold, Tiril Eckhoff, Johannes Thingnes Bø and Svendsen, combined for the best performance once again.
“I was really nervous, but I think everyone was, especially on the first loop,” Tandrevold said at the press conference, after she got the nod to start, replacing sick teammate Marte Olsbu. “The standing shooting was really hard, but I think the rest of my race was good. I was happy to be in front on the last downhill, because last year I fell [there] so I was a bit scared.”
“I was a bit rusty, I need some more races, then hopefully it will be a really good season,” added her teammate Eckhoff.
“Full speed from the start, that was the only plan I had,” Bø explained the tactics on his leg, where he required two spares in the prone shooting and all three in standing. “Of course I didn’t plan to use five extra [shots]. All in all I am satisfied, but there are still some things I need to improve on. A little bit faster skiing, a little bit better shooting.”
That prompted laughter from his teammates and his competitors on the podium.
Italy, with Lisa Vittozzi, Dorothea Wierer, Dominik Windisch and Hofer, narrowly missed out on its first victory in the mixed relay, tying its second place from two seasons ago in Canmore, Alberta.
“I was sure that Lukas would catch Emil!” Wierer said in the press conference with a laugh. “I think we can be satisfied. Of course we are not in perfect shape yet right now. I for sure didn’t have the best autumn, I was sick three times in two months. So it wasn’t perfect, but with some more races I can get in shape.”
The defending mixed relay world champion Germany, with Franziska Preuss, Maren Hammerschmidt, Benedikt Doll and Peiffer, was also happy with its outcome. Last season’s 2017 World Championships star Laura Dahlmeier will likely miss the whole opening weekend following an illness.
“It’s always a good feeling to start the season with a podium,” Hammerschmidt said at the press conference. “First race, I am always very nervous.”
“It was OK. In prone I could have hit my shot if I had taken a little more time,” Peiffer told German broadcaster ARD in an interview after the race, according to a translation. “It was a hard last lap, they really pushed the tempo right out of the shooting range and then I immediately had a small gap. I am glad that I was able to make up one more position and secure the podium … You are always nervous before a relay, with a big audience, and you have to race against all the good guys again who you didn’t see all year, so everyone is a bit excited.”
Slovakia, with Paulina Fialkova, Anastasiya Kuzmina, Tomas Hasilla and Kazar, had to settle for fourth place, but still the team was all smiles in an interview with the IBU.
“I am really surprised, but it was great,” Fialkova said. “It was close to the podium, but we hope maybe next time.”
“A good start to the season, and we will do it again and again,” Kuzmina added.
“I was really happy for the shooting and also running, a good result for the team today, good motivation,” their teammate Hasilla agreed.
“Very happy from this competition,” Kazar said. “Very hard last lap, going from [second] place after the final shooting to fourth place in the finish. There were really good men [racing against me].”
The home team from Sweden, with Hanna Öberg, Anna Magnusson, Jesper Nelin and Fredrik Lindström, was fifth on the day (+34.5, with one penalty and five spares), delighting the fans in Östersund after Öberg tagged off in first place after the first leg.
Another surprise of the day was Finland, with Mari Laukkanen, Kaisa Mäkäräinen, Tero Seppälä and Tuomas Gronman, leading the race at the halfway point behind a strong performance from Mäkäräinen, who moved up from eighth to first place with the best first-leg course time.
“It was a hard race, especially with Kaisa Mäkäräinen, she was really fast today,” Eckhoff said during the press conference.
The two Finnish men could not quite hold on to that position, but still finished in eighth place, 1:32.4 back with one penalty and eight spares.
It was Finland’s best World Cup mixed relay performance since placing seventh during the 2011/2012 season and sixth at 2009 World Championships in PyeongChang, South Korea, host of the upcoming Olympics.
Also with Mäkäräinen and Laukkanen, Finland actually won the gold medal in the mixed relay at the 2016 summer biathlon world championships, a rollerski biathlon event typically skipped by a number of the world’s best athletes. Similarly three of Slovakia’s starters on Sunday had placed second in that event last summer, gaining some positive experiences for the upcoming season.
Canadians Satisfied with First Race, Despite ‘Race Jitters’
For Biathlon Canada, Emma Lunder, Julia Ransom, Scott Gow and Brendan Green formed the relay team on Sunday.
“Today was the second mixed relay I’ve ever done on the World Cup circuit, and I felt pretty calm going into the race,” the 26-year-old Lunder wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “My plan was to sit back on the first lap as I know it can get really frantic, and I didn’t want to get tangled up with anyone.”
She cleaned her prone stage, coming back on the course in 12th place just 13 seconds out of first.
“I’ve never raced in Östersund before and I’ve always heard that it’s notorious for tricky winds, but the flags were almost totally still during both my zero [target practice] and the race,” Lunder wrote. “I was really proud of my prone as I’ve been working hard to improve my accuracy and speed this summer.”
In the standing stage, she had to use all three spares to avoid skiing a penalty lap, but improved positions nonetheless as other teams struggled as well.
“I had a bit of a problem when I came into standing with my contact lens moving around leaving my eye blurry,” she explained. “I think I paid a little bit too much attention to that, and wasn’t as focused on the standing shooting as I would’ve liked.”
On the last loop, she was passed by three teams fighting for positions in a pack, but didn’t lose any more time to the top.
“We had amazing skis after a great performance from our wax team, so I was able to take advantage of that on the downhills and zip past people,” Lunder wrote. “It was pretty exciting for me to be skiing with a pack where I could actually see the leader of the race, and I felt strong for the most part. Overall I was happy with my race today.”
Lunder exchanged to Ransom in 13th position, still only 24.2 seconds out of first.
“I was very excited for Emma Lunder’s race,” Ransom wrote. “She handled the start leg calmly and confidently, tagging me off in a great position.”
Like Lunder, Ransom also shot clean in her prone stage, then needed two spares to also clear her standing targets.
“The shooting range was really calm, especially in comparison to past years I’ve raced here,” Ransom wrote. “I was happy that I kept my shooting somewhat together. That was a big improvement from last year’s mixed relay in Östersund.”
But on the course she had some trouble holding up with the pace set by the race leaders, losing more than 40 seconds to them on both her second and third loops.
“Today was a tough day for me. My legs were lead on the course, but I half expected that to be the case [on] day three after travel,” she wrote.
Ransom tagged Gow in 15th place, 1:46.2 back.
“It was nice to be back racing again,” Gow wrote in an email. “This was probably the most calm I have been for a season opener.”
The older brother of Christian Gow, who raced the single mixed relay with Rosanna Crawford earlier in the day, required all three spares in his prone stage and another two in standing.
“I was mostly happy with my race except for my shooting. The conditions can be very tricky here, but my problem was with my head, not the wind,” Scott Gow wrote. “I was so wrapped up in the race and trying to make as much time as possible that I think I was too excited going in to each shooting. I will try to be more relaxed for the upcoming races.”
He he tagged Green in 16th place, after losing more than another minute to the leaders (+3:03.9).
“Östersund can often provide some very tricky racing conditions, but today was actually almost perfect in terms of wind,” Green, Canada’s anchor, wrote in an email. “In my experience, it’s rare to see a day like this.”
He only needed one spare each in his prone and standing stages, and with the 15th-ranked course time improved again by one position to finish 15th, 3:28 minutes behind Norway, without any team penalties and a total of 12 spares.
“I always find the season opener quite tough,” Green explained. “Digging deep to find that extra gear always hurts at the beginning of the season, but hopefully it will get easier and start to feel better from here on out.”
The Canadians agreed that all in all, the race was a good building block to start off the new season.
“From chatting with the team I think we all had some good parts of our races, and a few things we’ll work on between now and the individual races,” Lunder concluded. “It was a good start today, and we can definitely build and improve from here!”
“After a few more days of adjustment I think our team is positioned for some great results this coming season,” Ransom wrote.
“I think I held us back a little bit with my shooting, but otherwise we did a decent job,” Gow wrote. “We got the race jitters out and now I think we will be ready to give it our all next week.”
“I think each of us were able to take away some positive aspects from todays race, but as a whole we are for sure expecting to improve upon today,” Green concluded. “It was good to get the first world cup race out of way, and we are looking forward to more racing this coming week.”
U.S. Still ‘Blowing Out The Cobwebs’
US Biathlon’s original race lineup included 2017 World Championships gold medalist Lowell Bailey and silver medalist Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan, and former Junior World Champion Sean Doherty.
But on race day, teammate Paul Schommer had to take Bailey’s spot after he “woke up with congestion,” according to a US Biathlon press release.
“We had planned on racing Lowell for the third leg, he didn’t feel 100% today so Paul was subbed in,” Doherty explained in an email to Fasterskier. “Just no risk in pushing it with the hardest individual race of the year on Thursday.”
Dunklee started the team out well, taking the lead on the course to come into the first shooting stage and leaving in eighth position, just under 10 seconds back after needing one spare. She moved up with a pack out on course, but in the standing stage required all three spares after initially missing one target.
“I felt strong and relaxed skiing during the first two loops and I think my technique is already a notch above last year,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “The third loop was a bit painful as my legs flooded with lactic acid and I wasn’t quite able to reel in the pack ahead. I struggled in standing with the spare rounds despite favorable conditions but shooting can often improve with my better race fitness.”
Coming back on the course in 11th position and 26.1 seconds back, she still managed to cut the distance to the leaders in half on her final lap and tagged off in ninth place.
Egan got off to a strong start, both on the course and in her prone stage, where she cleaned without any spares and started her second loop in 11th. But with athletes like Mäkäräinen and Kuzmina setting a high pace up front, she explained she was struggling.
“This was my first race of the year and it was a rude awakening,” Egan wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “From the very beginning the pace seemed crazy and I was just trying to hold on. I am reminded now that the level is super high and I just need to go harder and faster all the time. I’ll get better as I race more but today was a bit of a shock.”
In the standing stage, she quickly ran out of spares and had to ski two penalty laps, which put her back to 20th (+2:27) when she returned to the course for her final loop.
“Conditions were perfect for me on the range today,” Egan wrote. “Last year in this race I did the exact same thing. I think the shock to the body makes it almost impossible to keep my mind where it needs to be for shooting. My prone is automatic — I am at the level of ‘unconscious competence’ — where I can do it right without thinking about it. But in standing I’m at the ‘conscious competence’ level. I really have to use my brain to execute all the steps.
“Today, I shot all 5 rounds from the clip plus 1 spare before suddenly having a moment of clarity and saying (out loud actually), ‘where have I even been aiming??’ …may or may not have included an expletive,” Egan continued. “Then, using my brain, I was able to easily hit my last two shots.”
She tagged Schommer in 21st, 2:51.5 minutes back.
Schommer lost more time on the course, but with a good shooting performance — needing just one spare in each of his stages and a range time ranked in the middle of the field — he avoided getting lapped and held the team in 21st, 4:29.5 seconds back.
It was only his second World Cup appearance in a mixed relay, following an eighth place last season in Kontiolahti, Finland.
From there, Doherty anchored the team to 21st place, also requiring just one spare round in each of his shooting stages.
“The conditions were uncharacteristically calm,” Doherty wrote in an email. “But I would not expect the conditions to stay calm for all the races so I forecast some challenging shooting on the [next] weekend.”
“It felt great to be back on the world stage,” he added. “It is a fantastic atmosphere. I enjoy competing on the world cup and I am always looking forward to the start of the season. The level of competition is just as high as I remember it last year and I am excited to see where I stack up after a great summer of training.”
“The good news was that I was never nervous, which is something I’ve struggled with in the past, and I shot fast today,” Egan reflected. “My shooting has been excellent in training since we got on snow, so I just need to transition into race mode. Today was what you might call ‘blowing out the cobwebs’!!!”
“The first race of the season is typically a tune up race for us and not one where we necessarily try to optimize our performance,” team veteran Dunklee concluded. “There are more nerves, there’s jet lag, and it often takes a few real races before the body starts to feel fully sharp again. We didn’t end up very high on the results list tonight, but I have no doubt that our best is yet to come.”
“I was impressed watching Emily [Dreissigacker] lead the first loop of the single mixed relay – she looked very comfortable in front of the pack,” Dunklee also commented on the performance of her teammates in Sunday’s single mixed relay. “Most rookies are terrified of trying something like that. You’ll see more of her in the future for sure.”
Racing will continue on Wednesday with the women’s 15 k individual, and the men compete on Thursday in the 20 k individual.
Next season, Östersund will host the 2019 IBU World Championships. Norway surely wouldn’t mind making it four wins in a row in Östersund in the mixed relay there.