It’s not often in World Cup racing that the top five finishers are separated by two and a half minutes – especially not over just 10 kilometers – but once in a blue moon, that’s the effect the wind can have in biathlon.
Today’s gusty conditions in Kontiolahti, Finland, were just such a situation. In the women’s pursuit competition, Kaisa Mäkäräinen, racing on her home course, took a six-second lead from Saturday’s sprint and turned it into a one-minute blowout over Darya Domracheva of Belarus.
The listed wind speed of 2.7 meters per second at the start did not give an accurate picture of conditions, where large gusts could come from any direction and later die down.
“It was a bit luck of the draw if you would hit a calm note or not,” Canada’s Rosanna Crawford wrote in an e-mail.
“It shifted a lot from stage to stage how people moved up or down,” U.S. head coach Per Nilsson agreed. “In 20 seconds it shifted from okay conditions to really challenging ones. Many examples of this today.”
Mäkäräinen said in a press conference that she was “a little concerned about the wind” going into the race, but she managed to escape with just two penalties, better than most of the field.
In fact, the only one to outshoot her was Domracheva, who started in bib 20 but climbed all the way up to second place with a single penalty.
“I saw all of these girls on the penalty loop and knew there was a chance for the podium…I really tried to stay focused on the shooting range today,” Domracheva said in the press conference.
Olga Zaitseva of Russia moved from sixth place up to third with five penalties, 1:54 behind Mäkäräinen. Teja Gregorin of Slovenia was fourth, +2:25 with three penalties, and Tora Berger of Norway placed fifth, +2:38 with six penalties.
With the win, Mäkäräinen completed a sweep of all three competitions in Kontiolahti and extended her lead over Berger and Domracheva in the World Cup total score. Besides her strong shooting, she also had the fastest ski time of the day. Although she says that she has never performed her best in Oslo, where the World Cup is set to conclude next weekend, she seems set to continue her strong string of races.
The only woman who could come close to matching Mäkäräinen’s ski speed was American Susan Dunklee, whose split was just 0.3 seconds slower. Dunklee started the pursuit in eighth position, but moved up to seventh by the finish despite seven penalties.
“Extremely surprised,” was how she described her reaction to improving her position with so many missed shots. “I never would have guessed that I’d move up with seven misses. I would normally expect to be back in at least the 20’s. But because everyone else struggled so much in the shooting range, it worked out.”
The wind caused most of Dunklee’s misses, and she described the conditions as chaotic in a phone interview.
“My last standing stage for example, I came in and stood on the mat, and four or five girls in front of me were all standing on their mats and hadn’t taken a single shot yet,” Dunklee said. “They were just waiting for these gusts to calm down. Then I had to wait for a while. And then by the time I took that first shot, I was just so tense from overholding that I missed it, even though it had calmed down.”
Range times varied widely and were in general far longer than usual. Instead of shooting prone in 30 seconds, Dunklee took 40 and 43. That last standing stage was, instead of the usual 25 seconds, 49. And that took a toll.
“I’ve never had shaky legs before,” Dunklee said. “People talk about shaky legs in standing all the time, but I had never had that until today. You’re just standing there waiting to take the shot, and your body just gets tired.”
She ended up 3:01 behind Mäkäräinen, despite notching the best pursuit result of her career.
“Susan’s running is so good now,” Nilsson wrote in an e-mail. “And she is starting to get used to that! I think she will continue one more week with really solid results.”
Teammate Hannah Dreissigacker dropped from 41st to 49th with eight penalties, in her first appearance in a World Cup pursuit.
“The shooting was definitely rough for me,” Dreissigacker told FasterSkier. “It was pretty windy today, and I’m just not very good at shooting standing in the wind. I don’t think it was even super windy when I came in, so it was definitely also to some extent just me. But at least a lot of other people had rough shooting today, so I had company!”
Sara Studebaker, the third U.S. starter, placed 54th with four penalties.
For Canada, Rosanna Crawford started in 16th position and had an up-and-down race depending on the whims of the wind in each of her shooting staged. With a single penalty to start out, she moved up to 13th, before dropping into the mid-20’s and then climbing back to 14th. She finished the race out with three misses in the final standing stage, and placed 27th.
“I’m bummed with my last shooting, but the wind was howling!” Crawford wrote in an e-mail.
She also struggled with ski speed over the later stages of the race, although she did beat Franziska Hildebrand of Germany in a close finish.
“This is a tough course, and not one of my favourites,” Crawford wrote. “There’s one long climb that was made even harder today because you had to make a tight corner into it, that really fried my legs.”
After a long season with six of the best ten results of her career, Crawford hopes that she can keep up the good performances for one more weekend of racing.
“I am looking forward to Oslo and finishing the season strong,” she wrote. “Good shooting will be key in order to keep up these good results. Right now it’s mostly survival mode. Just 3 more races, then just 2 more then just one more then HOME! It’s been a long season and almost 3 months in Europe. I am glad we get to finish off in a great place like Oslo!”
Canadian teammates Zina Kocher and Megan Heinicke did not start the pursuit. Head coach Matthias Ahrens explained that both had sustained “minor injuries” in the sprint race and with bibs 54 and 60, it wasn’t worth starting the pursuit.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.