BiathlonRacingA Holiday Tradition Unlike Any Other: French Biathletes Win World Team Challenge

Avatar Harald ZimmerDecember 30, 2015
View of the indoor section of the ski track and the shooting range inside the arena at the Biathlon auf Schalke, or World Team Challenge, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)
View of the indoor section of the ski track and the shooting range inside the arena at the Biathlon auf Schalke, or World Team Challenge, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)

Biathletes competing in the international IBU World Cup tour are used to large crowds by now, with races often attended by 5,000 to 10,000 spectators per day. But the annual World Team Challenge, a two-person relay invitational in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, is on something of a different level. Athletes skied on artificial snow through a park around a huge soccer arena, before entering the pitch inside via a tunnel, and then shooting in front of nearly 41,000 raucous fans, with music blaring and the noise level amplified indoors many times.

Two days ago on Monday, France’s Marie Dorin-Habert and her relay partner Martin Fourcade managed to perform the best among the 10 participating teams in this wild atmosphere, winning the final pursuit in 33:57.6 minutes (for about 12 kilometers of skiing, plus six penalty laps). The Czech Republic’s Gabriela Soukalová and Ondrej Moravec placed second, 12.6 seconds back (with three penalties), and third place went to local fan favorites, Germany’s Vanessa Hinz and Simon Schempp, 22.2 seconds behind with four penalties.

Fourcade already had two 2014 Olympic gold medals, six World Championships titles, and 46 World Cup wins in every discipline and just about every World Cup location. But he had yet to seize a victory in Gelsenkirchen’s arena and was eager to change that.

“It’s amazing, this is the only competition I did not win yet,” he explained in an interview with host TV broadcaster WDR after the race. “This morning I talked to Marie that it would be great to finally win it, and together we are a really strong team.”

The World Team Challenge relay race is held in a special format, with one woman and one man forming a team and exchanging repeatedly, each skiing a 1.3-kilometer loop and having to clean a shooting stage, or ski a short 75-meter penalty lap, before tagging off to their teammate. This mode of competition is fairly similar to biathlon’s new single mixed relay or the team sprint in cross-country.

Yet the location is vastly different, far away from any mountain range, in a flat region of Germany formerly known for its coal mines. And with the teams entering a darkened soccer stadium to a light show, a PA announcer, and loud music including the theme from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” the scene can be likened to the entrance introductions of NBA players or professional boxers.

The World Team Challenge, also known as “Biathlon auf Schalke” by the name of German first-league soccer team Schalke 04, which plays its home games in the domed Veltins Arena under a retractable roof and a large JumboTron-style video cube, was created to be a fun race event during the World Cup season’s holiday break.

The 2015 World Team Challenge podium, with France’s Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin-Habert (c) celebrating their victory, the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Moravec and Gabriela Soukalova in second place (left), and Germany’s Vanessa Hinz and Simon Schempp in third place (right). (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)
The 2015 World Team Challenge podium, with France’s Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin-Habert (c) celebrating their victory, the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Moravec and Gabriela Soukalova in second place (left), and Germany’s Vanessa Hinz and Simon Schempp in third place (right). (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)

Even more so than a regular World Cup, the race is held in a huge party atmosphere. The outdoor portion of the track meanders through a so-called “winter village” Christmas market with food stands for the fans. An abundance of Christmas trees inside the arena form little forests to delineate the track and shooting range, and entertainment includes a “shootout” to determine the starting order, the “Snowball Fight World Championship” (however undisputed that title may be), multiple live pop music performances, and an indoor fireworks show.

Now in its 14th season, the World Team Challenge has become a fixed institution circled on the calendar for many biathletes during the holiday break, ever since the German duo Michael Greis and Martina Glagow (now Beck) won the inaugural event in 2002.

The athletes invited to the race, by and large, take it seriously each year and are impressed by the atmosphere.

“Oh, it’s huge. It’s amazing to ski in front of such an audience,” Germany’s Hinz told WDR. “It’s something very different, the pressure is a little higher because everything goes by so fast … I was just overwhelmed.”

For Hinz and Schempp, it was their first podium finish and first time participating. Hinz, a former cross-country skier who switched to biathlon two seasons ago, achieved her first major success as a member of Germany’s gold medal-winning women’s relay team at the 2015 World Championships. For the World Team Challenge, she hadn’t planned to compete until the night before, as she replaced Schempp’s original partner Laura Dahlmeier who was sidelined with an illness.

“I was completely nervous,” Hinz said, according to news agency SID. “The fans were crazy, a huge compliment to the audience.”

There are no World Cup points to win in the event, yet the stakes are still high. World Team Challenge organizers guaranteed prize money of at least €10,000 for all starting duos, and this year, the winners got €14,000 per person, as well as a newly introduced challenge cup trophy.

In the past, sometimes the winners also received a new car, but arguably that prize was harder to split between two people, plus a small crew of coaches and technicians. Overall, €156,000 ($170,000) in total prize money was awarded.

“The form of this competition, short rounds, fast shootings, I like that, it’s pretty cool, a spectacular show for the viewers,” Germany’s Erik Lesser said in an interview with WDR. Lesser was last year’s runner-up with teammate Franziska Hildebrand.

“In my opinion, this is an event to show people who normally don’t get to watch us what biathlon is all about, and I think we managed to do that today.”

New Track ‘On World Cup Level’

Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko (bib 1, left) and Germany’s Vanessa Hinz (bib 2, right) lead a group of athletes on the outside section of the ski track during the 2015 World Team Challenge in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.  (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)
Ukraine’s Valj Semerenko (bib 1, left) and Germany’s Vanessa Hinz (bib 2, right) lead a group of athletes on the outside section of the ski track during the 2015 World Team Challenge in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)

For the 2015 edition, the Biathlon auf Schalke organizing committee, led by Herbert Fritzenwenger, an Olympic cross-country skier and biathlete who’s currently a color commentator for biathlon broadcasts on the German TV network ZDF, designed a new track through a park that incorporated multiple more difficult climbs and downhill sections on the part that is built outside the soccer arena.

In the past it was a rather flat loop, but this year it was supposed to more closely resemble what athletes would see “on the World Cup level,” as the organizers announced in a presentation before the race.

“It’s not exactly ‘The Wall’ of Ruhpolding or the ‘Birxsteig’ in Oberhof,” Fritzenwenger said, referencing two notoriously difficult climbs at the two World Cup locations in Germany. “But the athletes will feel that it is more difficult than in prior years.”

Using snow mostly coming from an artificial ski tunnel in a nearby city, every round was now almost 1300 meters long with 30 meters of vertical climb, which added up to about 300 meters for the men and 240 for the women for the whole day.

After some years where the organizers experimented with rifles using a laser aim, the athletes now use their own rifles with real ammunition on the 10-position range again, with bulletproof glass walls and an empty section behind it to protect the audience.

The increased difficulty of the course was evident during the races. Despite an indoor shooting range with no dreaded wind influence, most athletes produced more misses and thus had to skate more penalty laps than they normally would in a World Cup, also due to the fact that they were not allowed to use spare rounds.

The new track was also designed to be wider, offering more possibilities to pass each other and thereby make for more interesting race situations than in prior years.

“The athletes really enjoy it,” Fritzenwenger said in a pre-race press release.

Yet during the competition, it quickly became obvious that a sharp right hairpin turn coming out of a new downhill section was rather difficult. Many athletes not only had to use all their cornering skills to pass this section safely, but even had to resort to snowplowing to slow down and not crash into a fence, something especially the men rarely do during World Cup races. Those who didn’t reduce speed enough had to pay for it, with Russia’s Evgeniy Garanichev falling twice in the same spot, potentially costing his team a podium finish. Other athletes also made contact with the snow in this turn, including Germany’s Lesser and Slovenia’s Teja Gregorin.

“It was quite exhausting,” Hinz said in a post-race interview with WDR. “You can’t relax in the downhill sections because you have to focus so much. In the first rounds it’s still fine, but then it becomes increasingly difficult. It was really hard for me today, because those climbs were also pretty steep.

“We aren’t machines, everyone is giving their best, but for us, this is a regular competition,” she added. “We are trying to win, that’s why were are giving it all we have.”

Two ‘Halftimes’: Mass Start and Pursuit

As in prior years, the field of 10 teams was indeed world class. It was not just comprised of athletes who are all active on the World Cup circuit, but several who are currently in the top 10 in the overall World Cup ranking for both women (1. Soukalová, 2. Dorin-Habert, 3. Hildebrand, 5. Wierer) and men (1. M. Fourcade, 3. Schempp, 8. Garanichev).

It was a long race day for the athletes, with a shootout (more on that later) followed by the main event split into two “halftimes” as the organizers called it, borrowing a term from soccer. At first, a nine-loop mass start (the women skied four loops; the men five) on the 1.3 k course, followed by a pursuit race of that length the same evening, after just a short intermission break. Thus the women had to ski about 10 k, while the men had to ski 13 k.

Prone and standing shootings interchanged, and because the loops were comparatively short and intense, shooting accuracy was even more important than in regular World Cup races. It turned into an up-and-down event, and almost all teams remained in contention for the podium for a long time.

While one athlete was out on the track, crews of wax technicians hurried to clean and prepare the skis of the athlete who was receiving a short pause, very similar to a cross-country team sprint.

“We are mostly using fluid spray-on wax, that is faster [to apply], and also because temperatures outside are about 8 degrees Celsius,” a technician for the two German teams explained, while simultaneously preparing skis during a brief in-race interview with WDR, before his athletes needed them back in the exchange zone.

After what the organizers called the “first half,” the mass-start part of the event, Russia with Ekaterina Yurlova and Garanichev was in the lead with a winning time of 33:47.6, ahead of defending champion Ukraine, with Valj Semerenko and Sergei Semenov 12.8 seconds back, and France 14.3 seconds back in third place. Germany’s Hinz and Schempp were 15.2 seconds out of first in fourth.

The "winter village" outside the arena at the 2015 Biathlon auf Schalke, or World Team Challenge, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Facebook/Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)
The “winter village” outside the arena at the 2015 Biathlon auf Schalke, or World Team Challenge, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Facebook/Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)

But the organizers have come up with a clever way to make things more interesting for the viewers, and give all teams a fair chance and motivation until the end. They did so by reducing the deficit to the winner by halving each team’s time back, and making the maximum deficit 45 seconds. Thus Sweden and Italy, who had finished the mass start only in ninth and 10th, respectively, still had a chance to move up.

And the podium indeed would be flipped during the “second half” pursuit race.

The Czech Republic with overall women’s World Cup leader Soukalová and teammate Moravec had only finished in seventh, 53.1 seconds behind, but were able to make up a lot of ground in the pursuit, helped by the start rule and shooting only three more penalty laps.

With six rounds left in the pursuit, local favorites Schempp and Hinz briefly took the lead when Hinz managed to clean her targets, while Russia’s Yurlova and Ukraine’s Semerenko had to ski into the penalty loop, causing very excited standing ovations from the home crowd.

“One can only dream to come into the arena in first place, that roar and those masses of people were incredible,” Hinz told WDR.

“The atmosphere when we were in the lead was gigantic, this is something very unique,” added her partner Schempp.

However that excited feeling of being the leaders in front of their fans didn’t last very long. After Hinz missed a shot on the next stage, Dorin-Habert caught up with her again.

As they did repeatedly in the last World Cup weekend in Pokljuka, Slovenia, Schempp and Fourcade skied together for one loop after the exchange, but with three loops to go, Schempp caused another miss in a prone shooting stage while Fourcade cleaned his targets with amazing speed, and was able to create a small gap to Schempp, Moravec, Garanichev, and Ukraine’s Semenov.

“Of course he took a lot of risk in that last prone shooting, he finished very, very fast, but went out with a zero while I had one miss,” Fourcade’s opponent Schempp remembered in a post-race interview with WDR. “Then there was a gap, but nevertheless we can be very satisfied [with the third place], participating for the first time while they already had experience. And we indeed are!”

After Dorin-Habert had managed to keep the lead, Fourcade skied another fast round, jumping up the climbs to come into the final shooting in first place. He cleaned all his targets just before Moravec as the closest pursuer had even begun shooting. Fourcade knew he had beaten out his competitors, immediately turning and raising his right fist.

Moravec managed to clean his shooting stage, too, and defended the second place for the Czech team 12.6 seconds behind France, greeted in the finish by Soukalová.

It was a special event for Moravec not just because of the excellent result, but also because he is soon expecting the birth of his child sometime during the next week.

Schempp was able to still secure the third place for his team, cleaning his last standing shooting after coming into the range behind Austria’s Simon Eder, Garanichev and Semenov, and skiing to the finish 22.2 seconds back.

After coming in fourth place just 7.4 seconds behind the podium, Garanichev was a bit disappointed to have given up the Russian lead from the mass start with too many penalty laps and his two crashes on the track. But it was a hectic race also due to his personal life circumstances. Similar to the Czech Republic’s Moravec, he told reporters that he intended to board a plane back to Russia at 6 a.m. the next morning, hoping to be home in time for the birth of his child expected already for Jan. 1.

Ahead of the pack, Fourcade was able to ski a relaxed final round, repeatedly slowing down a bit to waive to the fans. Dorin-Habert waited for him behind the finish line to hug him immediately after he had crossed it, with the audience cheering for all remaining teams until they were in the finish, too.

“Maybe he has three legs, or three lungs, he is so strong,” a smiling Dorin-Habert joked after the race with WDR. “I don’t know how he does it, he is so fast. And if he is not in shape for once, he [still] shoots very well.”

It was France’s first victory in the event, after the same two athletes had achieved a second place in 2012, and four more podium finishes for other French athletes before.

(Third place for Vincent Defrasne and Marie-Laure Brunet in 2009, second place for Julien Robert and Florence Bavarel-Robert in 2006, third place for Vincent Defrasne and Sandrine Bailly in 2005, and second place for the pair in 2004.)

“In 2012 I was in the lead with Marie Dorin here,” Fourcade recalled. “But then I fell on the last lap and hurt my shoulder. We only came in second, so I was very disappointed.”

This year everything worked out for the French team. “It was a wonderful competition,” Fourcade said. “My family, my friends are here. This is the best way to end 2015.”

French teammates Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin-Habert hoist the new cup challenge trophy after winning the 2015 Biathlon World Team Challenge on Dec. 28.  (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)
French teammates Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin-Habert hoist the new cup challenge trophy after winning the 2015 Biathlon World Team Challenge on Dec. 28. (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)

Official Race Results: 2015 World Team Challenge

  1. France (Marie Dorin-Habert, Martin Fourcade), 33.57.6
  2. Czech Republic (Gabriela Soukalová, Ondrej Moravec), +12.6
  3. Germany I (Vanessa Hinz, Simon Schemp), +22.2
  4. Russia (Ekaterina Yurlova, Evgeniy Garanichev), +29.6
  5. Ukraine (Valj Semerenko, Sergei Semenov), +31.7
  6. Austria (Lisa Hauser, Simon Eder), +46.8
  7. Germany II (Franziska Hildebrand, Erik Lesser), +1:46.8
  8. Slovenia (Teja Gregorin, Jakov Fak), +1:57.6
  9. Italy (Dorothea Wierer, Lukas Hofer), +2:27.1
  10. Sweden (Emma Nilsson, Tobias Arwidson), +2:55.3

Notably Absent

No North American athletes participated in the World Team Challenge this year. In 2008 and 2009 Lanny Barnes and Jay Hakkinen represented the U.S. (placing ninth, then sixth for the best finish to date), in 2010 Tracy Barnes-Coliander and Tim Burke placed 10th, and in 2012 Susan Dunklee again with Burke finished 10th.

As for Biathlon Canada, no Canadian team has participated in the event to date.

It was unknown to the author whether North American teams had not been invited, or simply chose the longer rest over the holidays without additional travel and competition stress.

Norway, which usually has been a mainstay at this event, declined to send a team this year, citing a season preparation focus on the upcoming World Championships at home in Oslo.

Fun Pre-Race Events (i.e. The Shootout)

The 2015 Snowball Fight World Championships took place on Dec. 28 as part of the Biathlon auf Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)
The 2015 Snowball Fight World Championships took place on Dec. 28 as part of the Biathlon auf Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (Photo: Biathlon-aufSchalke.de)

Before the main event there also was a race among local junior teams called the “German Team Challenge,” with the duo Anna Weidel (age 19, perhaps best-known in the U.S. as a silver medalist in sprint and pursuit at the 2014 IBU Junior World Championships in Presque Isle, Maine) and Dominic Reiter (20) victorious.

Also before the two main races, Slovenia’s Gregorin won a lighthearted “shootout” event among all participating women and men, coming from behind after several other athletes missed their final shot and lost time having to reload spares manually. In this competition the athletes — while not wearing skis — were asked to hit 20 targets as fast as possible (five prone, five standing, five prone, and five standing), using as many spare rounds as necessary. Gregorin narrowly beat out Lesser, with Austria’s Eder in third, Fourcade in fourth, Ukraine’s Semereko in fifth, and Czech Republic’s Soukalova in sixth place. Gregorin had already won the women’s first round to move into the final of the best three women and three men.

As for the winners of the mentioned “2015 Snowball Fight World Championships” between 24 three-person teams? That honor went to the defending champions “Hau do Jus” from Wuppertal, Germany, narrowly beating out team “Snow Turtles” with 72 to 70 hits.

Nobody asked Fourcade and Dorin-Habert if they intend to also aim for this title next year.

Next World Cups

The regular IBU Biathlon World Cup season will resume on Jan. 7, with the next two World Cups both held in Ruhpolding, Germany, after the organizing committee in Oberhof, also Germany, had to cancel due to complete lack of snow in the region combined with too warm temperatures to produce artificial one.

“I’m happy that Ruhpolding has accepted the challenge and is doing everything to successfully host this World Cup,” Germany’s Schempp, who has made the town his home, described the difficult snow situation in an interview with German network ARD over the weekend. “It won’t be easy, but they are going all-out to make it happen. Two days ago I was training there, and right now it doesn’t look great with regards to the track, there is only about 1.2 or 1.3 kilometers. But with everything they do and it [the weather] supposed to become colder, I believe we’ll find really good conditions to race there in early January.

“Of course the situation is bitter for Oberhof,” he added.

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Harald Zimmer

Harald has been following cross-country skiing and biathlon for some 20 years since the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville and Lillehammer. A graduate of Middlesex University London and Harvard University, he now lives near the Alps where he likes to go skiing, snowboarding and hiking. He is a former track athlete in middle-distance running, as well as a huge NBA fan.

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