The IBU World Cup biathlon season kicks off on Sunday with a mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden. With everybody gearing up to have their best performances at the Olympics, it’s set to be an exciting season – and there are other unusual aspects, too. For instance Annency, France, will make its World Cup debut as the third venue the circuit travels to.
What about the racers? Here’s our breakdown of what to expect from the top four teams, listed in order of their combined men’s and women’s World Cup scores from last season. Stay tuned in the next few days for the rest of the teams.
At last year’s World Championships in Nove Mesto, the Norwegians won the mixed relay by 20 seconds, and it was no great surprise. Tora Berger was in the overall leader’s jersey for almost the entire season and took the title by a landslide; Emil Hegle Svendsen was in the fight for the men’s title all the way down to the wire, wearing the leader’s bib at times and ultimately finishing second. Both appear to be in good form already this year. Svendsen won a test race in Sjusjøen this weekend over a stacked field, and Berger had some shooting trouble but is certain to straighten that out before the season gets too far underway. She’s plenty fast.
On the men’s side, Norway looks even better than last year. Tarjei Bø, the 2011 overall World Cup winner, is back in good shape and was setting the pace in Sjusjøen; he struggled last year after missing a large chunk of the training season with illness, but managed a World Championship gold all the same. Ole Einar Bjørndalen didn’t always impress last year, but he also looks to be in better form, having won one of the Sjusjøen races and placed second in the other. The question is whether the 39-year-old can keep it together for a whole season all the way to the Olympics, but if anyone can do it, he can.
This year the national team went with a decision to favor youth over experience. It seems to have paid off: Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen was second in this weekend’s mass start, while World Junior Champion Johannes Thingnes Bø was seventh in both races in his first year as a senior. The move came at the expense of Lars Berger and Alexander Os, veterans who were left off the team and had to train on their own. But they seem to have weathered the storm; the pair were invited to Font Romeu, France, this fall by the Fourcade brothers. Berger was third in the Sjusjøen mass start and Os sixth in the sprint. They will both likely see World Cup starts as well.
On the women’s side, Synnøve Solemdal had a breakout year, winning her first World Cup race. But she had an up-and-down season, which may be partly attributed to her asthma; she says that she has now worked a lot on breathing techniques which help. Ann Kristin Flatland, a former World Cup winner, made her return partway through the season after having a baby, and is in good form again. Fanny Welle-Strand Horn broke into the top 10 for the first time and Elise Ringen and Hilde Fenne also provided support.
The Russian men edged Norway in the Nation’s Cup score with a variety of athletes who could hit the podium at any time. Anton Shipulin and Dmitry Malyshko each won two races, while Evgeniy Garanichev and Evgeniy Ustyugov were each twice second. Nobody can beat that depth in the men’s field, and yet Russia struggled when it counted: World Championships.
This past season, Shipulin was second in the mass start and third in the pursuit. Hardly bad results, but Russia expects medals, preferably gold, and preferably a lot of them. The pressure on the team for the home Games will be unbelievable. RBU Vice President for Elite Sport Viktor Maigurov told biathlonworld.com, “The Olympic Games is the competition, where only athletes with the best psychological resistance to stress and pressure, win. It will be twice as difficult for our biathletes to cope with this pressure, as these will be our Home Games.”
The men’s team, like Norway, has a few tricks up its sleeve to make it better than last year. Ivan Tcherezov, seven-time World Cup winner and one of the senior leaders of the team, is finally back in shape after a horrendous accident that resulted in a broken leg. And Alexander Loginov, a World Junior Champion, is coming into the senior field. He had a successful World Cup debut last season, placing fifth in the sprint and third in the pursuit in Oslo.
On the women’s side, it’s a familiar set of faces expected to be at the top. The Russian women’s team has been slipping a bit in the last years, with Olga Vilukhina and Olga Zaitseva leading the team in the Total Score in 12th and 13th. But each is more than capable to magical races and ended up on the podium several times last season. Zaitseva was practically guaranteed a medal in the World Championships pursuit, but was knocked down when Ann Kristin Flatland fell on the final lap.
Germany used to be the powerhouse of biathlon, and they can be again. But the team does not display the depth it once did: after veteran Andrea Henkel, who landed third in the Total Score, the next German was Miriam Gössner in ninth; the women nevertheless finished second behind Norway in the Nations Cup. On the men’s side, Andreas Birnbacher led the team in fifth and Erik Lesser was 16th, for fourth place overall in the Nations Cup.
For the men, Birnbacher confirmed his status from the previous year as one of the most focused and dangerous men in the field, winning twice and collecting a few more podiums. Lesser picked up his first two podium finishes; can he build on that this year? The biggest disappointment of the team was probably Arnd Peiffer, who lost his mojo after several excellent seasons. He seemed to be off to a good start in Sjusjøen, however, so maybe things are coming back together. Florian Graf and Simon Schempp provide relay help.
Henkel already seems on track for another excellent season, sweeping the Sjusjøen test races; she told FasterSkier in an interview this fall that she’s ready for her fourth and final Olympics. Gössner, meanwhile, has a tough road ahead. After her breakout season where she won three races (and also narrowly missed out on a medal at cross-country World Championships), she crashed her bike in Norway this spring and cracked three lumbar vertebrae. Franziska Hildebrand will replace her in the opening mixed relay. Germany also has high hopes for skiing Olympic gold medalist Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle and World Junior Champion Laura Dahlmeier, both of whom made their World Cup debuts last season with top-ten results.
When you think of France, you of course think of Martin Fourcade, who won the overall World Cup title last year over Emil Hegle Svendsen. Fourcade had nary a misstep the whole year; he was always in the fight, even if he didn’t win. It began to be unthinkable that he would lose, but he was eventually deprived on the biggest stage: World Championships. Unlike in 2012, where he swept the individual events, Fourcade won only the individual. Norwegians won the other three races. Fourcade has also been off to a tough start this year, bombing out of the Sjusjøen races.
He seems certain to bounce back, and his supporting cast, while overshadowed, is impressive. After all, France was second in the men’s relay at World Championships. Martin’s brother Simon Fourcade and teammate Alexis Boeuf also had individual podiums, while Jean Guillaume Beatrix was six times in the top ten. Fourcade told biathlonworld.com that he thought Beatrix and Simon Desthieux had improved the most this year; Desthieux made the case for himself with third- and sixth-place finishes in Sjusjøen.
The French women don’t get a lot of press, but that’s not fair. Marie Dorin Habert, the sprint bronze medalist from the 2010 Olympics, had three podiums and was one of the most consistent performers throughout the season; though she never won, she was always in the mix and finished fourth in the total score. Anais Bescond landed 17th in the total score, and Sophie Boilley and Marine Bolliet also had some good results. Marie Laure Brunet, who was bronze in the pursuit in Vancouver and once led the team, had a tough year and stopped her season short due to overtraining. She wrote a gut-wrenching blog post about how hard the decision was and her struggles to come back to top speed; hopefully she’s there now.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.