The second period of the biathlon World Cup opened in Oberhof, Germany on Wednesday with a…. ping.
Lots of pings, actually. Huge wind gusts obliterated the men’s relay field, and the International Biathlon Union reported that the world’s best biathletes used 352 spare rounds, about three times the normal amount in a World Cup relay, and still had to ski 100 penalty loops.
One team, however, wasn’t fazed by the challenging shooting conditions. Although they hit the penalty loop twice – a fairly normal number, matched by Belarus, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan – the Germans used superior skiing to lead the race from start to finish. Leadoff skier Christoph Stephan had the second-fastest opening ski time, and the next racers, Alexander Wolff and Arnd Pfeiffer, each had the fastest ski times for their legs. Only anchor skier Michael Greis was slower, but he still finished more than two minutes before the next team, so he didn’t exactly have to flaunt his speed on skis.
Behind the home team, chaos reigned supreme. A number of teams were once close to second place, but a single trip to the range could change their fortunes. For example, Sweden slipped from fourth place at the last exchange to 12th in the final standings,
But changes went in the opposite direction, too. Norway tagged off the final time in 13th place, but veteran Ole Einar Bjorndalen used two spare rounds and skied the team into third place, after losing a sprint finish with Michal Slesinger of the Czech Republic.
Lars Berger, the Norwegians’ second skier, had left the team in 15th place, and was impressed with the ground Bjorndalen was able to make up.
“I never thought we would be third after bad first and second legs,” he told IBU News. “But Rune Brattsveen and Ole Einar had great legs. It was a strange race; with this wind anything could happen. I knew it would be hard, because Ole Einar is not the best sprinter and he knows it, so it is always exciting when he has to sprint. Still, as a team, we are very happy with third today.”
The Czechs, too, were pleased with their result. For both Jaroslav Soukup and Andrej Moravec, it was their first World Cup podium.
“It was very happy day for us,” said Soukup. “I have never been on the podium ever in my career. Our team was close in Hochfilzen, but not on the podium. Even if we were third, it would have been great. But we hoped that Michal, who is a pretty good sprinter, would take Ole Einar.”
The United States struggled early in the race, with Lowell Bailey hitting the penalty loop four times in the standing stage, despite using all three spare rounds, and Tim Burke stuck skiing it three times. After both of their legs, the team was in 22nd place.
“Shooting was definitely a problem today,” Bailey told FasterSkier. “The conditions were very challenging and I wasn’t able to manage them in standing. I had a great opportunity to put the team in a good position for the second leg and I didn’t follow through. It’s disappointing and I feel bad that I left Tim in such a bad position for the second leg.
“We have struggled so far this year in the men’s relay.”
Luckily, the next two legs were a major improvement. Leif Nordgren, the third skier, shot clean with no extra rounds.
“Leif did a perfect race, without any extra rounds and good skiing,” head coach Per Nilsson said in an e-mail. “He brought us up in the result list again, from 22nd to 17th place. He was actually one of only two in the entire field to shoot without any extra rounds [the other was Hidenori Isa of Japan].”
Nordgren was happy with his race, and said that he felt he was skiing better than he had earlier in the season.
“I feel a lot better than I have in about a month,” he told FasterSkier. “Ever since the parasite in Sweden I’ve had a lot of trouble with my stomach, and it just seemed to drag down my training and racing. But I think over the break it finally started to get better. Maybe I trained it out of my system, but I feel so much better now. The first race after Christmas is always a little interesting, I think I’ll have to race myself into better form now since there isn’t much time to train, but I think I should be on the mend!”
Nordgren tagged off to Russell Currier, who had his best shooting so far this season. He used three spare rounds to avoid the penalty loop, and had the ninth-fastest anchor leg. With his help, the team moved up to 16th.
Currier helped the team in another way, too. Despite the fact that he had a qualifying race in the Czech Republic the next day, he volunteered to race the relay so that the U.S. could field a team. Otherwise, the three members of the World Cup squad would have had to sit out the race.
“Russell is the reason we were able to race today,” Bailey said. “Had he decided to travel to Nove Mesto earlier, as the rest of the U.S. team did, we would have only had three guys here in Oberhof and would not have been able to start today. We’re glad he decided to come to Oberhof!”
And there was one other positive for the Americans.
“For us it was important to participate because of the Nations’ Cup,” Nilsson said. “[Besides] Leif and Russell having their best races of the year, we moved up one spot in the Nations’ Cup.”
The Nations’ Cup determines World Cup start quotas, so any move up the rankings is an improvement for U.S. fortunes.
The Canadians struggled early on, like their southern neighbors, with Marc-Andre Bedard and Jean-Phillippe Leguellec each skiing three penalty loops. But Scott Perras and Brendan Green moved the team up to eleventh place.
“This is the first time us four have raced together,” Leguellec said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “We have a really young team and I believe we are going to be very good for a long time. Everyone on the team has had some good results before Christmas so I think we will be strong in years to come. You can’t approach the relay any different. You have to focus on your individual performance and we did that today.”
The World Cup continues in Oberhof tomorrow with a women’s relay.