After winning the single mixed relay earlier in the day, Norway made it a golden start to the World Cup biathlon season by also landing victorious in the four-person mixed relay in Östersund, Sweden, on Sunday.
Anais Bescond of France was the quickest in the first leg of the relay, but Fanny Horn Birkeland of Norway was just 3.1 seconds behind in second – and after that, her teammates took over the lead and never gave it up.
Tiril Eckhoff battled with the Czech Republic’s Gabriela Soukalova for six kilometers, tagging off in a dead heat; she had the fastest course time with four spare rounds to two by Soukalova.
“I tried to go out aggressively today,” Eckhoff told Norwegian broadcaster NRK. “I had some trouble in the beginning. But I’m happy. It bodes well for the rest of the week.”
Johannes Thingnes Bø used lightning-fast shooting to build and 13-second lead over Germany, and then his older brother Tarjei wrapped things up with two clean shooting bouts.
As Simon Schempp of Germany arrived on the range to take his final shots, Bø had finished shooting. Rather than skiing off, he turned around and took a bow to the crowd.
“I think my prone shooting was faster,” Johannes told Biathlonworld. “But [Tarjei]’s standing was faster and also better. So it’s one-one, but the total score goes to him today.”
Schempp took Germany home in second (+33.6), with the Czech Republic finishing third (+1:11.5) and France fourth (+1:48.2). Sweden finished fifth after Fredrik Lindström lost a sprint finish with France’s Jean Guillaume Beatrix – but top-five was still one of Sweden’s best relay finishes in several seasons.
Two North American Teams in Top Ten
The Canadian team of Julia Ransom, Zina Kocher, Scott Gow, and Brendan Green finished ninth, +3:08.6.
“This was my first time ever starting off a relay on the World Cup and I had so much fun!” Ransom wrote in an email. “I was definitely nervous but I have always loved mass starts and found it to go pretty smooth… I have good feelings about this year. With the help from the coaches and support staff, I made some big improvements this summer in both my technique and fitness. Those jumps made it only too exciting to get over to Sweden to start racing… That and the anticipation of having waffles every day.”
“For myself it’s nice to get the season underway,” agreed Green, who anchored the team and had the second-fastest last-loop time. “There are certainly areas I can improve on from today’s race. Typically it takes me a few races to really get going and I think today was no different. I felt better as the race progressed which I hope is a good sign for better form to come… There was wind present but it should have been more manageable for me.”
That’s the team’s best result in a mixed relay since December 2011, when they finished sixth in Hochfilzen, Austria.
“I am overall very happy about everybody’s performance today, skiing and shooting, and this should give the whole team confidence going into the individual events next week,” Head Coach Matthias Ahrens wrote in an email.
The United States finished tenth with Susan Dunklee, Annelies Cook, Leif Nordgren, and Lowell Bailey.
“We had an okay day but not a great day,” Dunklee wrote in an email. “There are little details that were off- for example we didn’t have a single shooting stage that was clean from the clip.”
Despite only two spare rounds in her leg, Dunklee tagged off to Cook in ninth place, 37 seconds back from France’s Bescond.
“I am satisfied with my shooting focus but my skiing isn’t quite there yet,” she wrote. “My highest gears were missing, plus an early tactical error left me boxed in on a downhill with too much speed. I crashed into the person in front of me and lost all my clips.”
Cook used five spare rounds and Nordgren was stuck with a penalty loop in prone, but the squad was able to climb from a low point of 14th back up to 10th by the finish.
Bailey agreed that things hadn’t gone perfectly, but that there were bright spots for the team.
“Although it wasn’t our best performance as a team, I think everyone had some points in their individual legs that they were happy with, while other spots were a bit rough,” he wrote in an email. “I was satisfied with my shooting, not thrilled, but satisfied. On course, I was also happy with how I felt, and the fact that I was able to fight it out on the last lap. At this point in the season, there’s always a little bit of anxiety as you approach the season; everyone has been training in different programs all year long, and it’s always hard to predict how you will react to your own training and how your level will stack up with the rest of the field.”
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.