The eyes of the ski world may have been focused on Oslo today, where the Norwegian women ran away with the win in the 4 x 5 k relay, but the biathlon world is focused on Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, where World Championships kicked off today with a mixed relay.
And while the result was the same – Norway on top by a solid margin – the route to victory was a lot more challenging for Norway’s biathletes. Tora Berger scrambled and predictably came into the tag zone in the lead. But Magdalena Neuner turned the tables on the favored Norwegians, and after two clean shooting stages, the Germans were in the lead. Meanwhile, Ann Kristin Flatland of Norway used two spare rounds and worked herself into a twenty-second hole.
When the men took over, both Arnd Pfeiffer of Germany and Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway used three spare rounds, and the gap remained almost the same. The legendary Bjorndalen is a hero in his country, but was unable to do a hero’s work today.
“I had some problems with sickness in January, and had to take some days off,” he explained to IBU News. “I stayed at home the whole time after that and had some very good training. I think that was a good strategy for me… Today was a very good race for me.”
While he wasn’t able to overtake Pfeiffer, he did all that was needed: he gave anchor leg Tarjei Boe a gap small enough to close.
The 22-year-old Boe, who wears the yellow overall World Cup leader’s bib, was set up for a battle with German veteran Michael Greis. But Greis did him a favor by using two spare rounds in the first shooting stage, while Boe cleaned. Because he had to load the spare rounds, Greis took 14 more seconds to shoot than Boe, and most of the catching up came with no effort to the Norwegian. Coming out of the range, Boe had a 14-second lead, which he extended through the second shooting stage and all the way to the finish.
While the Norwegians were favored simply by the fact that all four of their racers had won World Cup races this year, they haven’t always been strong in mixed relays in the past.
“It was very important for us to win today,” Bjorndalen said. “We have had problems in the mixed relay before with good teams. So it was good to be ahead of teams that have had success in this competition like Sweden and Germany.”
The French team of Marie Laure Brunet, Marie Dorin, Alexis Boeuf, and Martin Fourcade finished third, thanks to Fourcade’s clean shooting and second-fastest anchor leg ski time. The team was fifth at the last tag, passing Sweden and Finland en route to the podium.
Boeuf was particularly enthusiastic about his team’s finish.
“This is my first medal,” he said. “And it is cool.”
The Americans finished 13th, in a performance that had plenty of positives but more than enough frustrations as well.
“The mixed relay was, well, mixed for me,” said leadoff skier Sara Studebaker. “I felt great skiing and had a really solid leg in that regard, but the shooting was tricky.”
Studebaker used five spare rounds to put the team in 15th place.
“The wind on this range can really come and go and often comes from behind which can trick you into thinking there is less wind then there actually is,” she said. “After my first five shots in prone I took a couple clicks and that made all the difference in hitting my three spare rounds. But with so many spare rounds, it’s tough to really be in it.”
Laura Spector skied next, and used four spare rounds. She dropped the team to 17th place.
But luckily, the men were able to come to salvage the day for the Americans. Jay Hakkinen used a single spare round to move the team up to 16th, and then Leif Nordgren went on a tear, passing three teams despite using four spare rounds. He had the fourth-fastest second loop and the eighth-fastest finishing loop of all the anchor skiers.
“I had a pretty good race today, not great, but not bad,” he said of his effort. “The skiing felt really good so I was happy with that part. We knew from the beginning World Champs was late this year, so that was kind of our plan for me to be skiing fastest now. I’m definitely excited for the next couple of races. Anything can happen in biathlon, so if I can put together a good day on the range and on the tracks, who knows what can happen!”
Some of Nordgren’s strongest performances this year have come in relays.
“I’m not really sure why they’ve been the best this year,” Nordgren said. “I really like the head to head races that you get in a relay. I think I just perform a little better when I’m under that pressure direct from others. Most of my races this year have been either sprints or individuals, and the only real pressure there to do well is from myself.”
While the result was a large improvement on the Americans’ 18th-place mixed relay at the 2009 World Championships in Pyeong Change, South Korea, Studebaker said that the team was still disappointed.
“I think we were hoping things would have gone a bit better,” she said. “Jay and Lief both had excellent legs, and perhaps with a few less spares from Laura and I we could have been top-ten.”
Head coach Per Nilsson agreed.
“We are okay with the result for the mixed relay,” he said. “We finished right in the middle of the field, which is pretty much where we are ranked also. The shooting was okay, it’s always a little windy here and in general everybody used a little more extra rounds. The best team had 0+7 and we had 0+14, so also here we were in the middle of the field. So we can look forward to the next races. We are aiming for better biathlon performances when you both shoot and ski well, which also will bring better results.”
Regardless of the finish, the mixed relay was a good way to start the Championships. Both Studebaker and Nordgren are skiing in their first senior World Championships.
“It was a great way to get into race mode again,” Studebaker said. “This is my first World Championships, and coming off some great results in the U.S. World Cups I was a little nervous. It was nice for me to have today’s race to kick the nerves out a bit and relax. I feel like this was perfect preparation for me for the sprint race on Saturday.”
And Nilsson pointed out that it was good for the service team to have a practice run, too.
“The snow is a little different here than in other places,” he said. “We have [developed a lot of grinds] through our stonegrinding project with Muck Bauer in Schlessing, Germany. And through the hard work from our technicians Nicola Cantoni, Petr Garabik and Christian Sieler, we have make sure that all the different waxes are tested for these conditions.”