In the last competition before World Championships begins in Kontiolahti, Finland, in March, the Czech women’s biathlon team reminded the world that they’re the ones to beat.
Sure, Kaisa Makarainen of Finland and Darya Domracheva of Belarus are battling it out for the overall World Cup title, trading individual wins back and forth. And sure, a young but strong German team is making their mark.
But when it comes to relays, the Czech ladies reign like queens. In picking up a 28-second win in the 4 x 6 k competition in Oslo, Norway, on Sunday, they made it three wins in four relays so far this season. That fourth race? They finished second.
While the team has been strong in past, with Gabriela Soukalova and Veronika Vitkova winning and hitting the podium, they hadn’t won a relay until this season. Now, they can’t stop.
When asked how they pulled off the win, the Czechs emphasized that it was teamwork. And they joked with each other, too – and about themselves.
“I am the heaviest [skier] at the front, so I always have good skis on the downhills,” Soukalova told the IBU’s Jerry Kokesh. “It’s very fast.”
So far the team has won in every way you can count – it often comes down to an important leg by Vitkova, who is one of the fastest skiers on the World Cup this season.
Anchoring the team today, Vitkova came into the range for prone just ahead of Laura Dahlmeier of Germany. She used two spares – but Dahlmeier used one and stayed behind her, then used two more in standing and dropped to fourth. Instead of Germany it was Italy who moved from third up to second place by the finish, 28.3 seconds behind Vitkova’s winning time.
“Maybe Veronika on her first shooting, she made it funny too because we were afraid what would be next,” leadoff skier Eva Puskarcikova said. “But fortunately it went finally okay.”
Puskarcikova has had her standout moments, too. Her relay legs put her on the map before her individual results came through; she has six top-20’s to her name, but has not broken into the top ten. In the team’s win in Ruhpolding, Germany, earlier this season, Puskarcikova led after the first leg.
Today it was third-leg racer Jitka Landova, another younger member of the team, who brought the Czechs from third after Puskarcikova’s efforts and second after Soukalova’s up into first place.
“On the track it was the hardest for me,” Landova said. “Yesterday it was better for me. But on the shooting range I felt so much better.
Landova shot perfectly, not even using a spare round, and opened up an 18-second lead on Germany. Vitkova held onto that lead and the Czechs were dominant once again.
“It’s in hard training and a good sports group,” Puskarcikova said in the press conference of her team’s success.
“We had just a small team, and we didn’t have experience so much a couple of years ago,” Soukalova said in the press conference. “Now we are bigger, we are stronger, and we have a lot of experience. We didn’t have a special training for that, it comes with experience.”
France finished third, +45.9, and Germany fourth, +1:02.3.
The Canadian women sat in 11th place after Megan Heinicke’s leadoff leg, roughly a minute behind Dorothea Wierer of Italy, who was leading. Heinicke, who finished 12th in the individual competition on Thursday, used two spare rounds in prone and then cleaned her standing stage.
Rosanna Crawford took over and moved the team up to fifth, cutting almost 15 seconds off the time from the leaders. She used a total of two spare rounds and skied the second-fastest ski time of her leg.
After sitting out a few competitions with a bad head cold, Crawford feels like she’s back on track. She also finished 13th in the sprint competition on Saturday.
“I finally feel like I can push hard in a race and demand more from my body,” she wrote in an e-mail. “That cold I had took a lot more out of me than I thought and it’s nice to have this confidence boost going into World Champs. Our skis were really great today, so that made our job easier! I like the 2km course here, not too many hills and some good rolling flats. The snow was also pretty fast today, not breaking down as much as in the previous races.”
Audrey Vaillancourt used three spares and the team fell to tenth place before Sarah Beaudry took over for the anchor leg. Beaudry, still a junior who is prepping for the World Junior Championships which start in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday, kept her cool.
A single spare in prone moved her up to ninth, and clean standing up to eighth. She held that position all the way to the finish line, eking out a 2-second “win” over a charging Nadzeya Pisarova of Belarus.
It was the best finish for the women’s team so far this season, despite having a younger squad than usual. This is Vaillancourt’s first season as a World Cup regular, and Beaudry’s first season appearing on the circuit at all.
At other points this year the relay squad has included Julia Ransom, who is just out of the junior ranks and will likely compete at World Championships (although the team is not finalized). Emma Lunder has also been on relay teams.
“Top 8 is great result for our young little team!” wrote Crawford, who has for the past several years competed on relay teams with fellow veterans Megan Imrie, who retired after the 2014 Olympics, and Zina Kocher, who has moved off the World Cup circuit for the time being.
“We have some really strong shooters right now which is key in relays,” Crawford explained. “I think 8 spares is the high end of spares we will be using in future relays. It’s great to have the enthusiasm from the younger girls, it’s really infectious. Beaudry really impressed me today with her first and last loops! Being able to hold onto that the group she was tagged with and then out sprint Belarus for 8th was great to watch! Can’t wait to see how her races at World Juniors will go.”
The U.S. women were in 18th place before they were lapped and pulled from the race.
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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.