On Wednesday, Kontiolahti, Finland, became a venue that was hospitable for biathlon for the first time in perhaps several weeks.
After the bitter cold of the World Cup races two weeks ago, a general lack of sunlight, and a persistent wind that has dogged even the best shots at World Youth and Junior Championships this week, today’s balmy sunshine was a welcome reprieve.
“Today was an amazing bluebird day and there was almost no wind,” U.S. racer Tara Geraghty-Moates told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “We couldn’t really have asked for better conditions. My favorite thing about Finland so far is the snow – unlike at home we have a ton of it here!”
No team capitalized more on the relative calm than the Ukrainian youth women, who over eight shooting stages, or a total of forty shots, missed just four and thanks to the use of spare rounds avoided the penalty loop completely. Yuliya Zhuravok, Yuliya Bryhynets, and Anastasiya Merkushyna raced to a 58-second win in the 3 x 6 k relay, besting runner-up Sweden by a landslide.
Bryhynets took the lead after her first shooting stage, and by the time she tagged off to anchor Merkushyna had amassed a lead of almost a minute – which actually intimidated her teammate.
“It was very difficult to go with such a big lead,” Merkushyna told the IBU news service after the race. “My legs were shaking; that is not normal. My hands were shaking and my head stopped working. I only thought ‘please shoot as normal as possible.’”
Good shooting was the order of the day for the women’s race: the Swedes used six spare rounds and the third-place Austrians five. The same could not be said of the youth men’s x 7.5 k relay, where only three of the 22 teams used fewer than ten spare rounds and most ended up in the penalty loop at least once.
While the French led the men’s relay from start to finish and ultimately won by 38 seconds, that outcome didn’t seem certain when the racers entered the range the final time. French anchor Aristide Begue, who won the individual competition on Monday, needed all three spare rounds to clean his targets, and almost all of the leaders missed with at least one bullet.
That was what saved Begue, who was able to leave the range with a 22-second lead and then extend it in the last loop of skiing to hang onto the win for teammates Clement Dumont and Florian Rivot.
The Swedish youth men’s team placed second and the Germans third; the most exciting finish of the day came when Kazakhstan, Italy, and Belarus sprinted to the line for fourth-place honors, with the Kazakhs beating out the Italians by just 0.1 seconds.
Top-Ten Finishes For Both Canadian Teams
The Canadian women placed eighth today and the men ninth; coach Richard Boruta was satisfied with the results, but no more.
“I think it has been a relatively good day, probably reflecting our current position in this category in the world,” he told FasterSkier in an e-mail.
The women used only six spare rounds, all in prone. Rose-Marie Cote used two in the opening leg, and tagged off in 13th, roughly a minute and a half behind the leadrs.
“Rose-Marie had a good shooting day, but her ski speed this week is not quite there,” Boruta said.
The performance of the day came from Julia Ransom, who is fresh off a top-ten finish in the individual race. Using a single spare round in prone and cleaning her standing stage, Ransom also excelled on the trails, turning in the third-fastest time for second-leg skiers and moving the team up to eighth. Sarah Beaudry held the team’s position despite hitting the penalty loop once.
“Julia actually had a really good race,” Boruta said. “She was third overall in her leg and she had a good shooting performance as well. And for Sarah, her ski speed is fine, but her shooting seems to suffer this winter a little bit.”
In the youth men’s race, both Stuart Harden and Christian Gow turned in strong performances, and after two legs the Canadians were sitting in sixth place, just 30 seconds behind the winning French team – despite having already used eight spare rounds. After anchor skier Albert Bouchard was stuck skiing three penalty loops, the team dropped to ninth.
“It was a very interesting race for first two legs and both Stuart and Christian raced up to their potential,” Boruta said. “Christian has been skiing really well and he has a good chance to do very well in the sprint race.”
Gow placed 11th in the opening individual race, and after that effort told FasterSkier that he was looking forward to races that placed more of an emphasis on skiing rather than shooting.
“Looking at the results though I am happiest at the potential I see moving foward into the upcoming races,” Gow explained. “I now know that I am very competitive with the top of the competition. I think that in the sprint, pursuit, and relay to come I will be able to really push on the skis, and I would consider my skiing to be my strength in biathlon.”
Gow mixes straight cross country races into his competition schedule in Canada, so he knew that he’d be ready in that regard.
“I have done more biathlon than cross-country races [this year], but not much more,” he said. “I find that doing the ski races helps to keep myself in check with my ski speed; they are the best test to see how fast I am going at any point in the season.”
Young Americans Gain Experience With Relay Finishes
If the Canadians were lukewarm about their relay results, then the Americans were luke-cold after placing 13th in the women’s relay and 15th in the men’s.
“I can’t say we are happy with their results, but we are happy seeing kids racing hard and giving their best,” U.S. coach Algis Shalna told FasterSkier.
The women’s team matched their result from the 2011 event, but second-leg skier Geraghty-Moates pointed out that the Americans had actually skied a better race, despite being comparatively younger than last year’s squad.
“There was a much larger field from last year, so I think our overall performance was much better,” she wrote. “Last year we were close to 13 minutes off the pace, this year we were only 6:53 off the pace. When Anna tagged me she was a minute back. I was able to hold her tenth place, but I lost some more time off of the leaders.”
In Shalna’s view, that’s not bad given that leadoff racer Anna Kubek and Geraghty-Moates are both relatively new to the sport, having started in 2010, and anchor Melissa Manning is at her first World Junior Championships.
“Two girls had good performances, especially Anna, who shot well – no penalty loops – and skied well, tagging to Tara in tenth place one minute back from the leader,” Shalna said. “Tara skied very strong but had a penalty in prone, but she is second year in biathlon and this is a very respectable performance. Her range times were slower than top biathletes in the world, but she just needs more practice time and experience racing.”
Manning also hit the penalty loop, and dropped the team to 13th.
“Melissa, as a first year on the team, worked hard to keep us where we were,” Shalna said. “Is not easy to compete at this level the first time, with a lot of excitement and a fair amount of pressure.”
Geraghty-Moates was honest in her assessment of the team’s performance, but still positive.
“We are definitely off the European pace but we’ve made huge progress from last year,” she said. “For me it’s important to keep it all in perspective and just focus on making improvements one at a time.”
The youth men finished 15th after a promising start by Sam Dougherty, who hovered around tenth place for most of his leg.
“The boys could have done a little better and placed around tenth to twelfth place, but few penalties did not favor them,” Shalna said. “The best race was for Sam who had good start, them cleaned his prone shooting and used only one extra round to clean the targets. It was solid performance for him skiing and shooting.”
Sean Doherty kept the momentum going and lost only one place over the course of his leg despite hitting the penalty loop twice; Nick Proell replicated Doherty’s shooting errors, and the team eventually slipped to 15th.
“Sean skied well but struggled on both shooting staged and had one penalty on each,” Shalna said. “He was making time on skiing, but the extra time on the range to use spare rounds kept us from getting any closer [in the last two legs].”