Last weekend, a crowd of top international biathletes descended on the town of Frassinoro, Italy. Over a thousand years old but with just 700 residents, Frassinoro is home to one of the most ardent biathlon fanclubs in Italy. As part of their love for the sport, the clubs volunteers set up a summer biathlon festival each year.
Megan Heinicke was one of those who attended. The Canadian two-time Olympian, who lives in Klingenthal, Germany, traveled eight hours to get some facetime with her international friends and some race-intensity shooting workouts.
That included a time trial, shootouts, and a mixed-gender relay, where Heinicke and Italy’s Pietro Dutto teamed up to finish third.
“From a direct training perspective, the races are really short and it’s nothing really training relevant,” she said. “I think it’s way more interesting just to go there for a few days. You’re in this awesome little valley and on the day before the race we did an uphill rollerski together. There’s some international training sessions, and that was for me as much or more valuable than the event itself.”
But the shortness of the rollerski loop – just one kilometer – didn’t take away from the value of the competitions for Heinicke, who has seen little head-to-head competition or even training so far this season.
She’d recommend it to “anyone, a colleague or a fan,” she said.
For the last four years, the village has constructed a four-lane shooting range in their soccer field just for the competition.
“They build wooden ramps, sort of, or paths, from the path into the soccer field, and they cover everything so it’s possible to rollerski there,” Heinicke said. “So it’s pretty funny, but it’s amazing because it works really well. Everything is created from nothing.”
Not for long. Federico Fontana, a wax tech who this year will be working with the American team this season, told FasterSkier that at long last, permitting came through to build a real shooting range and a rollerski loop.
“The first part of the work will start soon just the time for bureaucracy!” he laughed.
Fontana and the town’s other biathlon enthusiasts see it becoming a regional hub for the sport.
“Our goal is to build a summer training center and bring in our town teams and athletes, and complete with summer facilities,” he said. “We have a lot to offer during the winter with more than 50 kilometers of cross-country ski trails.”
Those trails have made Frassinoro a big place for cross-country skiing, even if its population is small. Tonino Biondini won national championships in the 1970’s, and more recent stars like Sabina Valbusa and Arianna Follis are now connected to the area too (Valbusa coaches juniors there). Besides Fontana, two other Frassinoro men are World Cup wax techs, Gianluca Marcolini for Norway and Simone Biondini for the Italians. A young female athlete is also now on the national team.
All that might help explain the atmosphere of the summer competitions.
“They call it a biathlon festival, and it really is a festival,” Heinicke said. “It’s a small town but they have a massive party tent and it feels like the entire town is there. To watch the races, and there’s also kids races and other events. There’s food in the tent, a big party, an awards ceremony. It’s very family-friendly, with everyone from kids to grandparents in attendance.”
Could something like this ever work in North America?
“Yes, but the big challenge is to build the hype,” Heinicke said. “Well, no, the biggest challenge would be to get international people, because the travel is so far. But for sure the kind of setup, to have a sort of nordic festival with some summer races and some kids events and some sort of party, cultural atmosphere, I can definitely see that as something that would be just a really cool, positive sport event anywhere.”
In that scene, Heinicke found herself going head to head with World Cup podium finishers Dorothea Wierer and Nicole Gontier from Italy, and Romanian World Cup winner Eva Tofalvi in shootouts.
Summer Training and Fall Plans
For Heinicke, that was perfect. After moving to Klingenthal this spring, she hasn’t been focusing on shooting, instead getting her feet under her and developing her training strategy.
“The time trial actually went pretty well,” she said. “This was my first shooting with race-pace intensity. I hit nine, and thought, okay, I still got it from the winter! So that was good.”
The relay didn’t go as smoothly – both she and Dutto shot “relatively poorly”, she said. (Tofalvi and Dominik Windisch of Italy teamed up for the win.) But it was still a good introduction back into shooting with intensity.
“Of course in the moment you really want to hit the targets, just like ever,” she said. “It’s fun and you want to win. But it’s totally no pressure and it’s totally fun.”
With shooting buoying her to best-ever finishes last season on the World Cup – she was in the top 15 four different times – Heinicke is now focusing on ramping up her ski technique and speed to be more competitive in the 2015-2016 season.
“Skiing-wise I think it will be a lot of technique this summer,” she said. “I saw from myself a few times last season that the potential was there to be more competitive in terms of ski speed and I feel like, and I got a lot of feedback, that ski technique is an area where I have possibly the most potential for improvement. This year I have already started with really specific ski technique goals and I’m planning on putting a lot more time into working on some details that I hope I can bring onto skis.”
She trains almost entirely alone in Klingenthal, where she moved because her son’s father lives there. For a week, she’ll train in Klingenthal and spend time with her son; then she’ll head to Ruhpolding or Oberhof, the biathlon centers of Germany, for time on the shooting range.
Klingenthal is a ski jumping and nordic combined center, but the nearest biathlon range is an hour away.
“It’s not too bad,” she said of the situation. “The rollerski track here is really fun. There’s lots of places to run and road bike. All the standard stuff is full speed ahead.”
Also full speed ahead are plans for other international trips this summer.
“I’m really looking forward to July because the top two Canadian men and women have a training camp in Norway,” Heinicke explained. “That includes me and I’ll join my team again. We’ll have a short training camp and then participate in the Blink festival. I’m super excited about that.”
She will also return to Canada in August with her son for a family wedding, and spend almost a month training there. After that, there’s German rollerski championships. She’ll likely spend time in the ski hall in Oberhof, and then the season will be about to start.
“I’m discovering a lot about myself, and I need to find different ways to communicate over the distance with friends and teammates and my coach,” Heinicke said. “Everything is long-distance this season. And I need to keep the motivation really high to work on the details, because I’ve never had a training year where I’m doing 80% of the work alone.
“On the plus side, it’s incredibly flexible!” she laughed.
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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.