As they had done in the first two relays this season, Germany and France occupied the top two positions on the podium in the women’s 4 x 6-kilometer relay on Sunday at the IBU World Cup in Antholz, Italy. And to the joy of over 20,000 raucous fans in the sunny arena, home team Italy claimed the third place. So far, so not very unusual.
But at the halfway point of the race, Susan Dunklee had moved the U.S. team into second position, just 33 seconds behind Germany in first. A potential surprise was in the air.
“Head-to-head shooting and hunting people down on skis are two of my favorite racing experiences, so I was thrilled with today,” Dunklee stated, according to a US Biathlon press release.
Starting the race in bib 22 out of the last start row, her teammate Clare Egan had slightly moved up on the course coming into the first prone stage, and with a clean shooting performance left the range in fourth place just 3.1 seconds behind the leaders.
“I rarely get to do mass starts but I love them,” Egan wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “I shot clean and was the first athlete off the mat so my plan worked. I just tried to position myself as best I could and then pass on the shooting range.”
She was able to keep up with the teams around her on the next loop, and with one spare in the standing shooting, she managed to hit all her targets, skiing back on the course in ninth place.
“Last week I also hit 9/10 targets, but then I had to use all three spares to get that last target down, because I got so nervous,” Egan explained. “So this week I really tried to prepare mentally for shooting my spares and it helped.”
On the final loop she managed to overtake the Austrian team while getting passed by Switzerland, and while Egan lost a bit more time to the French and German teams leading the race at that point, she tagged off to Dunklee in the ninth and just 21 seconds behind France and Germany.
Dunklee quickly began to close gaps and overtook several of the teams around her, including Sweden, Belarus, Slovakia and Norway.
“I felt sharper on skis than earlier this week,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “I think my body adjusted better to the altitude each day. I did not follow any sort of pacing plan today; I saw people ahead of me early and I went after them, and then held on as best I could on the last loop.”
In her prone shooting stage Dunklee needed two spares to hit all targets, leaving the range in fourth position. But she kept gaining ground on the loop and with a clean standing stage, while most of the athletes around her needed spares.
“I was disappointed to miss my last two shots in prone again, but standing felt good,” Dunklee wrote. “I took a few extra breaths before the first shot and then used an assertive cadence.”
Keeping Italy and Norway behind her on the final loop and only losing a few more seconds to Germany’s Maren Hammerschmidt, Dunklee tagged her teammate Joanne Reid in second (+32.9).
Reid, who is in her first full season with the US Biathlon World Cup team, was able to keep up with the leaders on the first loop, skiing close to the eventual podium finishers Anaïs Bescond of France and Alexia Runggaldier of Italy.
Reid cleaned the prone stage without any spares, but as most of the teams around her did the same, several teams remained close together. On the next loop, Reid was nearly able to hold her distance to the leaders, but was passed on the biggest climb by Ukraine’s veteran Valj Semerenko.
She may have invested a bit too much energy trying to keep up with the best teams on that loop, and in the following standing shooting Reid missed her first shots and eventually ran out of spares, having to ski twice through the 150-meter penalty lap to lose more than a minute and a half.
Reid tagged teammate Maddie Phaneuf in 13th position (+2:24.3). For Phaneuf, it was only her second time anchoring a U.S. World Cup relay.
“My very first World Cup two seasons ago, I anchored for our team (Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, and Annelies Cook) in Ruhpolding,” Phaneuf wrote in an email. “I remember our team did not have a very good race, and I got lapped.”
This time, it went better, especially due to her shooting performance only requiring one spare in standing (0+0, 0+1) and achieving a top-10 range time.
“I was pleased with my shooting today, especially coming out of the Individual race from earlier this week with so many mistakes,” Phaneuf explained. “The wind was much calmer on the range, which helped. The biggest thing for me was that I found myself less distracted by the atmosphere and more focused on my shooting, which I’ve been trying to deal with the past few races. It can be tough with all the TV cameras, excited crowds, and announcers!”
On the final loop Phaneuf was able to keep Slovakia’s Jana Gerekova behind her, but was unable to bridge the gap to two other teams due to a small mishap.
“By the last loop I was hanging with the Polish and Norwegian girls [Krystyna Guzik and Rikke Andersen], but I caught my ski on some fencing coming around a corner into a downhill and lost a lot of momentum,” she wrote. “I was really bummed, because then I lost the chance to draft these girls into the finishing stretch. But I am happy to see that my ski speed is improving with every race, and it’s making me more and more excited for World Championships in a couple of weeks.”
Back again in 13th place where she had begun, Phaneuf crossed the finish in 1:11:58.9 hours, 2:46.5 minutes behind the winners. The U.S. had two penalties and seven spares.
“Today was a great day for our team and I am proud of how all of my teammates performed and the effort they gave,” Dunklee commented. “We can see that we are not far off a top 10 or even better, and that is motivating.”
While the U.S. team faded back a bit in the second half of the race, several of the more experienced teams fought for the places on the podium.
Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier struggled to control her last shots, gasping heavily in the thin air of the Antholz biathlon arena some 1,600 meters above sea level during the final standing stage. But with her last spare, she managed to avoid the penalty lap and secured the victory for her team with Vanessa Hinz, Hammerschmidt and Franziska Hildebrand. Dahlmeier even had enough time to grab a flag from a fan on the finishing stretch before crossing the line in 1:09:12.4 hours, with 12 spares and zero penalties.
“That’s why you have six spares in the relay,” Dahlmeier said with a laugh when asked by German broadcaster ZDF about her shooting stages, where she needed five spares to clean. “And when you ski over the line in first, you can’t have done all that much wrong. I wasn’t actually scared [of a penalty lap], but I made it a bit too suspenseful with my shooting and was happy the other girls had given me a lead.”
Germany had also won the two prior relay races of the season in Pokljuka, Slovenia, and Ruhpolding, Germany.
“Three relay competitions in this season, three victories – of course that makes us the favorites for the World Championships,” Hildebrand said, according to an IBU press release. “I think as a team we are strong enough to handle this pressure.”
Crossing the line 24.2 seconds behind Dahlmeier, France’s Marie Dorin Habert comfortably secured second place for her team on the final loop, with eight spares and zero penalties. Despite requiring fewer spare rounds, the French team of Anaïs Chevalier, Justine Braisaz, Bescond, and anchor Dorin Habert was not quite able to keep up on the course on Sunday.
“Maybe at the last shooting, almost,” Bescond said at the press conference when asked if, during the race, she thought her team might claim the victory. “Unfortunately we were not strong enough to catch the German team today.”
Just like it was the third victory for Germany, it was also the third second-place finish of the season for the French women. “We are happy, but we want to beat Germany, maybe at World Championships,” Chevalier said at the press conference.
On the final round Italy’s Dorothea Wierer tried everything to get a podium on her home course, following two weaker performances in the individual and mass start races, but Ukraine’s 22-year-old Anastasiya Merkushyna didn’t make it easy for her, fighting back to take a small lead. But on the last small climb into the arena, Wierer broke her resistance, celebrating her third place when she skied into the arms of the teammates Lisa Vittozzi, Federica Sanfilipo and Runggaldier awaiting her. Like the other teams on the podium Italy had no penalty, and required nine spares.
“I was going away from the shooting range with Merkushyna,” Wierer commented in the press conference on her last loop. “I felt really good, and I don’t know if she was only playing with me, but she seemed not so strong on skis. But then she made a little sprint and I pushed so hard to keep [up with] her. And on the last uphill I made another sprint hoping she would not take me anymore, but I wasn’t sure.”
“We are not always shooting so well,” she said when asked about Italy’s chances for the World Championships relay. “But I think we are getting better and more confident. And I think we will beat the German and also the French team!”
“I am kidding,” she added with a laugh, turning to Germany’s Hildebrand sitting next to her. “I am not kidding!”
Ukraine’s relay with Yuliya Zhuravok, Yulia Dzhima, Semerenko and Anastasiya Merkushyna finished fourth (+37.5), with six spares and zero penalties.
Canada 18th Despite Strong Shooting
The Canadian relay of Megan Tandy, Julia Ransom, Emma Lunder, and Rosanna Crawford shot as well as some of the teams on the podium, requiring only eight spare rounds and incurring zero penalties, but could not keep up with the leaders.
After starting in the fourth row in bib 11 and skiing close to the top group on the first loop, Tandy required four spare rounds (0+2, 0+2) setting her back early in the race. She improved by two positions on the final loop, but tagged off in 18th place, more than a minute behind the leaders. Ransom improved one place to 17th with two solid shootings (0+0, 0+1) but doubled the deficit, and Lunder kept them in that position with a clean standing before losing one spot again on her last loop (0+1, 0+0) to exchange in 18th. Crawford (0+2, 0+0) was only briefly able to move the team up to 16th place before losing those positions to China’s Xuelan Wang and the Czech Republic’s Veronika Vitková (who rested their star Gabriela Koukalová on Sunday) on the last loop to ultimately finish 18th (+4:12.1).
“I think we were hoping for another top 10 today,” Crawford wrote in an email. “Antholz even on a calm day has tricky shooting, the altitude and the flat run into the range I think catches people off guard. We had some good skis today but [it] just wasn’t enough to keep us in contention. We had some great results though this week, with Emma’s 21st [in the individual race] and Scott [Gow] making his first Mass Start.”
Recently struggling a bit to get her speed up to her level from last season, Crawford posted the 15th-ranked course time on the fourth leg of Sunday’s relay after an extended recovery.
“We had decided to change the training plan around because skiing was just getting worse and worse each race,” Crawford explained. “So I didn’t race the pursuit in Ruhpolding or the Individual here, took a few days off and kept this week really easy … So hopefully the rest I took will pay off for World Champs.”
The IBU World Cup now enters a two-week break ahead of the World Championships in Hochfilzen, Austria, which begin on Feb. 9 with a mixed relay.
During this period, there will also be the 2017 Open European Championships beginning this Wednesday in Duszniki-Zdrój, Poland, which several World Cup starters including representatives from the U.S. and Canada plan to race in.