KONTIOLAHTI, Finland — At least one team finished with big smiles at the end of Thursday’s epically slow-and-slushy 2 x 6 + 2 x 7 kilometer mixed relay on the first day of the 2015 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships in eastern Finland.
Ondrej Moravec anchored the Czech Republic to gold, and with plenty of time to play with before doing so, he grabbed his nation’s flag from a stadium spectator to carry across the line.
Picking up one leg and pumping his free arm in the air, Moravec flashed a huge grin at the 4,500-person crowd and was greeted by three happy teammates in the finishing pen. Like the rest of the 26-team field, they had been through a lot in the last 1:20.27.2 hours, but what counted was that they handled the conditions better than any other team and came out on top.
Veronika Vitkova, Gabriela Soukalova, Michal Slesinger, and Moravec combined for a penalty-free effort, using a total of eight spares en route to the win. They finished 20.2 seconds ahead of France, which used eight spares as well. The defending Olympic mixed-relay champions, Norway finished third, 27.7 seconds back with three spares and a penalty loop.
While the Czech Republic, which notched silver from the mixed relay at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, consistently skied in the top three, its team mostly had the task of chasing down Belarus, which got out to an 20-second lead with second-leg Darya Domracheva.
Domracheva had come back from getting tagged in fifth, 19.4 seconds behind Vitkova as the first-leg leader. After trailing Japan’s Fuyuko Suzuki for most of her three 2 k laps, Vitkova pushed ahead of her before the exchange to give Soukalova a 2.1-second lead.
And while Soukalova was put in a prime position, after Vitkova used two spares on each round but cleaned to keep them at the front of the pack, she was nervous.
“I was afraid of the race before the start because I really don’t like these conditions,” Soukalova said in a post-race press conference about the at-least-ankle-deep snow in above-freezing temperatures. “It was really hard, but I tried to go [in] with a clear mind and just enjoy the race.”
She ended up cleaning both her stages and tagging Slesingr in third, 25.7 seconds after Domracheva and 5.7 seconds behind Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen, who cleaned to bring her team from 11th (after Mari Laukkanen’s first leg) to second.
“You could see in the end of the race, one kilometer before the finish, I was completely exhausted,” Soukalova said. “So I really appreciate the good job of the rest of the team.”
After the second exchange, Slesingr brought the Czechs to second with a clean prone and two standing spares. He followed Vladimir Chepelin of Belarus out of the range for the second time, about 25 seconds back, after Chepelin used three standing spares.
With one 2.5 k lap to go, Slesingr closed the gap to 11.7 seconds and tagged Moravec in second. Norway handed off in third, 45 seconds back, after Johannes Thingnes Bø lifted the team from sixth to third with clean shooting.
From there, Moravec proceeded to stalk Belarusian anchor Yuryi Liadov, who used one spare in prone. On the second lap, Moravec passed Liadov and led him into the range for the last time.
While Liadov missed three more standing to leave the range for the last time in fourth, 25.7 seconds out of first, Moravec (who used one spare in each bout) remained in control heading into the final lap, leading France’s Martin Fourcade in second by 18.2 seconds. Fourcade cleaned both stages to bring France from fourth to second by the last stage, and he ended up skiing the fastest anchor leg to come within 15 seconds of Moravec by 6.1 k.
But with 1.4 k to go, the Czech anchor solidified the victory with the second-fastest course time on the last leg, 7 seconds slower than Fourcade.
“I was so surprised the Belarusian guy was a long time ahead of the race,” Moravec told the IBU media after the race. “I think it was also pretty good result for them, but I believe for myself that I can beat him and I did it and I was so happy.”
Belarus finished fourth, 31 seconds out of first and 4.3 seconds off the podium.
“I think it was a pretty good race for everybody on the team,” Moravec said in the press conference. “It was perfect.”
After Anais Bescond’s first leg, in which she used four spares (one prone and three standing), France rose from 12th to fourth with Marie Dorin Habert, who cleaned prone and used one standing spare. She also skied the third-fastest second leg after Mäkäräinen and Domracheva, respectively.
“I’m very happy with this medal and I hope next year we could change medals with the Czechs,” Habert said in the conference. “We have to work hard for it, but it’s a very nice day for the French team, too.”
Jean-Guillaume Béatrix kept France in fourth with a clean first stage and used three spares standing, coming into the final exchange 1:10.5 out of the lead and 25.6 seconds after third.
“It’s like running in the sand here,” Beatrix recalled. “I’m happy that in the end we can be on the podium because it was unbelievably hard.”
“It’s like running in the sand here. … It was unbelievably hard.” — Jean-Guillaume Béatrix (France)
Fourcade clawed back more than 15 seconds within his first two kilometers and proceeded to shoot a perfect 10-for-10 to keep his team ahead of Norway for silver.
“I have no thoughts about missing the team relay,” Fourcade said when asked whether he considered skipping the coed event to prepare for other races at World Championships. “It was important to me and important to team France so I’m really happy I did [it] and really happy we catch some medals.”
While Norway’s Fanny Well-Strand Horn cleaned both her stages to tag off in sixth, Tiril Eckhoff used all three spares in standing and skied a penalty loop. Yet she still managed to keep Norway in sixth, 1:32.4 out of first.
“It always sucks to get the penalty, but I just have to go and hope for the guys to take medal and they did so that was really good,” Eckhoff said.
The team’s third leg, Johannes Thingnes Bø noted how fast their skis were despite the conditions.
“The most [important] part of my race was the good skis today — they were really fast and also our shooting today was really strong,” the 21-year-old Bø said. “We had just one shooting that was bad. We are happy to get a medal.”
His older brother, Tarjei Bø, who anchored the team to third, cleaned as well.
“We are always happy with the medal. Of course, we’re going for the gold medal each relay … but still bronze is good,” Tarjei, 26, said. “It’s a big difference with bronze medal and fourth place. I think as a group, we’re happy.”
And at the end of the day, the Belarus team — at least Domracheva — wasn’t bummed, either.
“This is the best place for a few years for us in mixed relay,” she told the IBU. “From start to start, we have better and better results. Fourth place is really close to the podium, and I’m glad with my own race and it was not easy conditions today. We saw for our guys also some really strong competitors, and it was a good biathlon fight.”
Also in the top 10, Austria placed fifth (+1:00.3) with three total spares, Germany was sixth (+1:22.8) with six spares, Italy finished seventh (+1:24.7) with 10 spares, and the U.S. tied its best World Championships mixed-relay result in eighth (+1:46.6) with one penalty and eight spares. Finland ended up ninth (+1:59.5) with eighth spares and Russia was 10th (+2:00.2) with just two spares.
Ukraine finished 11th (+2:10.3) ahead of Canada in 12th (+2:27.9). The Canadians tied their nation’s mixed-relay best at World Championships in 12th (a year after placing 11th at the Olympics) with a total of four spares. After leading the first two laps of the race, Japan placed 21st out of 26 teams.
- 2015 IBU World Championships
- Anais Bescond
- Czech Republic
- Darya Domracheva
- Fanny Well-Strand Horn
- Gabriela Soukalova
- Jean Guillaume Beatrix
- Johannes Thingnes Bø
- Kaisa Makarainen
- Kontiolahti mixed relay
- Marie Dorin Habert
- Martin Fourcade
- Michal Slesinger
- mixed relay
- Ondrej Moravec
- Tarjei Bo
- Tiril Eckhoff
- Veronika Vitkova
- Vladimir Chepelin
- Yuryi Liadov
Alex Kochon (email@example.com) 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.