This year’s World Cup biathlon schedule has presented a confusing dichotomy: it seems like races are either characterized by a lack or snow, or too much of it – sometimes at the same venue, just days apart.
While panning television shots of athletes racing along thin white ribbons in the woods has become all too common, so too have the fuzzy, gray screens where cameras struggle to pick skiers out through heavy snowfall.
“We’ve had a lot of tough condition races this year,” U.S. biathlete Sara Studebaker told FasterSkier. “I like to think that it’s just going to make us tougher and better in the long run.”
Friday’s 7.5 k sprint race in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, was no exception. What began as a pleasant day turned into a blustery snowstorm as the first starters emerged from the woods the range for their prone shoot.
As more and more snow built up on the tracks, which at the start were “icy as a skating rink” according to American Susan Dunklee, the race turned into a nightmare – particularly for the latest starters, who weren’t able to ski even one loop on the icier trails. In addition, the wind became strong and variable, sometimes coming from one direction and at other points the complete opposite.
“You could get lucky and come into the range when there wasn’t too much wind, or you could come in with some big gusts,” Studebaker said.
The women’s hair was visibly blowing in the wind, and many had to take clicks on their rifle sights as they hit the shooting mats, or sometimes even in the middle of their stage. A few had to stop and brush the snow off of their sights.
“I would not wish [these conditions] on my worst enemies,” said U.S. women’s coach Jonne Kahkonen.
Only one of the 92 women was able to drop all the targets, and that was Olga Zaitseva of Russia. In a sprint, which features two shooting stages for ten shots total, the number is usually much higher.
“I waited for the wind three or four times,” the Russian said in a postrace press conference. “On one shot, the rifle moved but it was a hit. I was the lucky one.”
In Zaitseva’s case, the old phrase “luck of the draw” held some weight. The Russian started with bib 13, and while she definitely encountered challenges on the range, neither her skiing nor her shooting included conditions as tough as those faced by later starters.
Second-place Tora Berger of Norway started several minutes behind Zaitseva, but was still in the first third of the field. She was impressed with Zaitseva’s shooting, and not disappointed with her result given her two penalties.
“It was not easy to shoot,” she said. “The wind was so strong at times. It was not so bad when I was out there, but I think it was very hard for some of the late starters.”
Magdalena Neuner of Germany placed third, and remains atop the overall World Cup standings. With her victory today, Zaitseva passed Kaisa Makarainen of Finland to move into third place. Makarainen had won Wednesday’s individual, but today missed six shots, including all five in her standing stage [meaning that she “dirtied”], and still managed to finish 14th.
It was a good day for Russia, with not only Zaitseva’s victory but several more finishers in the top ten. Olga Vilukhina continued her best-ever season with a fifth-place finish, while Ekaterina Glazyrina improbably placed sixth despite starting with bib 55.
The North Americans were led, as usual, by Canada’s Zina Kocher, who finished 23rd. Starting with bib 29, Kocher had a decent first shoot, accruing a single penalty, but then a disastrous standing stage. She was left to ski three more penalty loops before heading to the finish.
“[It was a] definitely disappointing last standing,” she told FasterSkier. “I did what I could and went for it in standing, and then blasted out of there for a fast last lap.”
Her last lap was indeed fast – she ranked 12th over those 2.5 k and moved up ten places from when she had left the range. On the whole, though, Kocher was not particularly satisfied with her experience today.
“Today was an extremely gusty day in the range and on the tracks,” she said. “A preposterous day actually. I was lucky to have started when I did, as snow started to dump after I was finished and the track slowed down a lot for the other competitors.”
Even though Kocher, who had placed 15th in Wednesday’s sprint, was left looking for more, she has one more chance to get it in Nove Mesto. In Sunday’s pursuit, she will start almost two and a half minutes behind Zaitseva, but only 20 seconds out of the top 20 and one minute out of the top ten. With her ski speed and 20 opportunities for her competitors to make shooting errors, a lot is possible.
“For the pursuit Sunday, I will once again just focus on moving up the ranks with good shooting,” the Canadian said. “The trick will be mastering the wind if it is similar to today.”
After a career-best 20th place on Wednesday, teammate Megan Imrie slipped to 44th in the sprint on the back of five penalties.
She finished one place and three seconds ahead of Dunklee, who was the first American on the results sheet. Dunklee did her Canadian competitor one worse and missed six shots. Her prone stage was particularly rough; she racked up four misses only 2.5 k into the race.
“When I started the race, it was partly cloudy with a little bit of sunshine,” she wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier. “When I came in for my first shooting, it had just started blizzarding.”
With bib five, Dunklee had some of the best luck of the day, but couldn’t capitalize. Still, there were several great aspects of her race – she had the 12th fastest ski time over the 7.5 k race. That included a fourth-fastest first lap, which Dunklee said was deliberate after she never found her zip in Wednesday’s individual.
“I did start today’s race fast because I wanted to feel like I was in the race right from the start,” she explained.
Like so many other early starters, she felt fortunate that she’d at least had the chance to excel, even if she didn’t have her best race. Some teammates, she said, had been doomed from the start.
“Today was a very complicated weather day, and that impacted much of what you see on the results sheet,” she said. “By the time the last starters got on course, they didn’t have a fair chance. They were plowing through centimeters of new snow and could barely see the targets.”
That group included Annelies Cook, who started with bib 71. Despite the poor visibility, Cook managed to hit seven of ten targets. And even though the tracks were slow, she placed 51st, good enough to qualify for the pursuit on Sunday.
“Had Annelies started earlier, she probably could have made points (top 40), but that’s racing,” Studebaker said of her teammate’s performance.
Studebaker will join the Dunklee and Cook on Sunday after finishing 54th with four penalties. It is the first time all season that three Americans will appear in the event, which includes only the top 60 finishers from the previous sprint.
“I had a rough standing stage, but in general I feel okay about my race,” Studebaker said.
The Idaho native has had several frustrating weekends so far this season, and has not shown the form that earned her four top-20 finishes last year. With the U.S. men having weaker performances in January than they had in December, Studebaker responded to questions about the team’s shape by saying that the main goal was to at their best in March for World Championships.
“For me, I know I’m not exactly where I had hoped to be right now, but I’m making slow improvements on the skis and am feeling confident that our plan, to be fast for World Championships, is going to work,” she told FasterSkier. “It’s for sure a bit frustrating for all of us after the season we had last year, but we’re learning to just evaluate ourselves on where we are, and looking forward. The big thing for us right now is to be making progress.
“Today was a better feeling on the tracks for me than Wednesday, so that’s an improvement, and I have to be confident that will continue.”
The final U.S. racer, Tracy Barnes, was literally one of the last women to start, and her 87th-place finish reflected her bad luck. By the time Barnes was competing, the weather was no longer merely bad, but had become dangerous.
“We couldn’t cool down on the warm-up loop due to the danger of falling trees,” Dunklee said.
While there have been plenty of storm-marred races in the last few years, Neuner of Germany perhaps summed up the Nove Mesto sprint the best.
“It was a crazy race,” she said. “We have seen some crazy days before, but this was special.”