On a day of consistently good shooting, it was skiing that ruled the day in the women’s 4x6km relay in Antholz, Italy on Saturday.
And even without retired star Magdalena Neuner, it is the Germans that jump to mind when speed and skis are equated.
Franziska Hildebrand got things started on the right foot, needing just two spare rounds to clean prone and standing, while posting the second fastest course time.
That was only good enough for third at the tag, with Poland’s Krystyna Palka shooting clean and skiing just as fast.
When Magdalena Gwizdon headed out on course for the second leg, the Poles held a 12 second lead on France and Germany.
Gwizdon maintained placing, but gave up the time with Russia’s Olga Zaitseva and Germany’s Miriam Gössner closing to within seconds.
Gwizdon and Zaitseva needed just a single extra round apiece, while Gössner used four, relying on exceptional skiing to close up.
This trend continued through the rest of the race — Germany consistently picking up seconds with their combination of good shooting and blistering times on the tracks.
Nadine Horchler opened up a gap on the third leg, shooting clean and skiing less than a second slower than leg leader Vita Semerenko (UKR).
Poland held on to the podium for one more leg as Monika Hojnisz used a single spare round, tagging in second, now over twenty seconds down.
That would be the end of an initially stellar day for the Poles. With just two spare rounds over three legs and six shooting stages, they were set up for a strong result, and victory was not out of reach.
The wheels came off however when anchor skier Weronika Nowakowska-Ziemniak imploded in standing to the tune of two penalty laps, dropping the team down to sixth.
Up at the front, veteran Andrea Henkel closed out for the winners, but not without some drama.
Needing three spare rounds to Russian Olga Vilukhina’s one, Henkel dropped nearly thirty seconds, and headed out on her second loop even with the Russians.
But the tables turned in standing, with Henkel using the single spare this time, and Vilukhina needing three. The German turned on the afterburners over the final kilometers, extending her 12.8 second lead coming out of the range to 17.4 at the finish.
France climbed up to third with Poland’s plummet, earning the podium spot with impressive shooting — the French women needed just four spare rounds over the entire day, often a performance worthy of victory. But the French did not have the skiing chops to back up their shooting, and settled for third.
Frequent podium contender Norway ended up with the wooden medal in fourth, undone by Synnoeve Solemdal’s penalty on the second loop.
Tora Berger made up two spots and significant time on the closing leg, but had too much ground to make up on the smooth firing French.
USA Strong in 10th
The American women, led by Sara Studebaker’s perfect shooting on leg 3 finished a season-best 10th, despite what Studebaker termed “not the best day for all our girls.”
Annelies Cook used four extra rounds and incurred a penalty on the scramble leg, leaving the U.S. in 14th headed into Susan Dunklee’s turn.
Cook had a good day on skis, posting the 7th best time of her leg.
Dunklee needed five extra rounds to hit her targets, but avoided the penalty lap. With the 10th fastest ski time, she moved the team up a spot before handing off to Studebaker.
Studebaker brought the team up to 11th, matching her perfect shooting with the 8th fastest leg time.
“I was really happy with my race today,” Studebaker wrote to FasterSkier in an email. “It was definitely nice to end the trimester on a really solid note. Shooting felt pretty relaxed today — I tried to focus on what I know works for me and be a little more aggressive than I’ve been the last couple races.”
She added that she “felt a lot better skiing” today, a positive sign after an up and down season thus far on the tracks.
Hannah Dreissigacker took over for the anchor leg in a virtual tie with Canada.
As Zina Kocher struggled on the range in prone for the Canadians, earning two penalty loops, Dreissigacker was solid with two extra rounds.
Three more extra rounds in standing did not derail the Americans, and Dreissigacker easily stayed clear of Kocher for the final result.
In just her second World Cup start Dreissigacker posted the 10th best ski time of her leg.
“Our goal for this season has been top-8 since we know when we have solid days together we can definitely do that,” Studebaker said.
Setting a season-best mark in the relay despite some subpar days leaves the team feeling confident with World Championships just around the corner.
“I think that gives us a lot of confidence that we can be up there solidly in top-10 and definitely can shoot for higher going into World Champs,” Studebaker said.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.