First Relay Victory for Italy; Canadian Women 10th and U.S. 15th

Seth AdamsDecember 13, 2015
The victorious Italian women at the Hochfilzen World Cup, in Austria. Left to right: Federica Sanfilippo, Dorothea Wierer, Karin Oberhofer, and Lisa Vittozzi. Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus
The victorious Italian women’s 4 x 6 k relay, with (from l to r) Federica Sanfilippo, Dorothea Wierer, Karin Oberhofer, and Lisa Vittozzi at the Hochfilzen World Cup on Sunday in Austria. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

The women’s biathlon 4 x 6-kilometer relay, marked by good shooting performances, perfect weather, and several unusual lineup choices came down to the wire, with the race decided on the last lap in a sprint between Italy’s anchor Dorothea Wierer and Germany’s Franziska Preuss. Wierer lunged over the line first by less than a ski length, in a time of 1:05:32.6. This secured the first World Cup win for an Italian women’s relay in history, celebrated extensively by her teammates and coaches in the finish.

After a number of changes between several countries vying for the final spot on the podium, Ukraine prevailed in the end, taking third 13.1 seconds behind the Italians. None of the three teams on the podium suffered a penalty lap, with Italy having to use eight spare rounds, Germany seven, and Ukraine 10.

After sweeping the podium in the sprint and securing first and second place in the pursuit race this weekend, Germany’s women had to be considered the overwhelming favorites for the relay. But on Sunday, Germany opted for a lineup of Franziska Hildebrand, Maren Hammerschmidt, Vanessa Hinz and Franziska Preuss, a group of athletes who had never been in a relay team together.

They were not alone in trying something new, with teams such as the Czech Republic, Italy, France, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and Canada also experimenting with new athletes or at least order changes.

Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, the winner of the pursuit race on Saturday and anchor of the gold-medal-winning relay at the 2015 IBU World Championships, rested on Sunday.

“This was my own decision,” she explained in an interview with German broadcaster ARD before the race. “The season is long enough, and the World Championships are what matters. And I believe as strong as we are as a team right now, the other four girls can do well without me.”

The German coaches are happy that they still have an ace up their sleeve for the next relays. “We know that there still is a long and tough season ahead of us,” Women’s Head Coach Gerald Hönig said. “We are planning with an eye towards the [2016] World Championships in Oslo in March. So a deep team is a nice problem to have, in contrast to always having to use the same two or three top performers.”

Miriam Gössner, who achieved a third place in the sprint on Friday, also took a break from racing on Sunday.

American Susan Dunklee skates her way through the second leg at the IBU World Cup women's relay in Hochfilzen, Austria. Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus
American Susan Dunklee racing the second leg of the IBU World Cup women’s relay on Sunday in Hochfilzen, Austria. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

With the Germans explicitly stating their goal to reach the podium, the day got off to a problematic start for Germany, with other teams charging ahead.

Hildebrand, the winner of the sprint race on Friday and fourth place in the pursuit on Saturday, skied a controlled race at first, and cleaned the prone stage with perfectly centered shooting. But then she required two spare rounds in the standing position and had trouble inserting them, setting her back to 14th position. After a good final round, she tagged off at the first exchange 11 seconds behind in eighth.

“Still in sight of the leaders,” Hildebrand recalled in the ARD interview. “And the other girls then turned it around.”

Italy’s first skier, Lisa Vittozzi, who also scrambled for Italy’s bronze-medal relay at World Championships last March, fared better, shooting perfectly (0+0, 0+0) and tagging off just 4.2 seconds behind the Czech Republic who was in first at that time. On the second leg, Karin Oberhofer kept Italy near the front, requiring only one spare round (0+0, 0+1), and tagged Italy just 1 second behind.

Throughout the race, Germany struggled a bit with technical details. Maren Hammerschmidt, the surprise second-place finisher in both of the previous races, had two misses (0+1, 0+1) and doubled the deficit she had been handed by Hildebrand. In slow-motion replays from the shooting range, she could be seen desperately trying to insert a spare round into her rifle, before it fumbled back out.

“That was a technical malfunction today, nothing I could do about it,” Hammerschmidt said an interview with ARD. “A shot hung up in the ammunition magazine. I did not expect this, and will have to check that clip again at home.”

She tagged 22.2 seconds behind the leaders in ninth place, one behind Canada’s Megan Tandy.

“I hope we can still secure a podium finish,” Hammerschmidt said in a mid-race interview.

It then fell to Vanessa Hinz, who placed 15th in the Hochfilzen sprint and 29th in the pursuit, to bring Germany back into contention. With two fast shooting performances (28 seconds prone) and requiring only one spare round, she steadily moved up through the ranks, and handed over to Franziska Preuss in first.

“I was really happy about the nomination [for the relay], and glad that it worked so well today,” Hinz later said.

On the third leg of the relay, Italy struggled a bit. Federica Sanfilippo, a surprising podium finisher during the first World Cup weekend in Östersund, Sweden, and not a member of Italy’s bronze-medal relay at World Championships, required five spares to clean her targets. She had the toughest time in standing (0+2, 0+3), but avoided the penalty and skied the fastest lap of the field, handing off to Wierer 21.6 seconds behind.

For Preuss, the 2014 Olympics ended in a minor drama during the relay, when she started for Germany at the age of 19 and crashed twice, getting snow into the sights of her rifle and costing her team their chance at a medal. Since then, Preuss has usually raced the second or third leg in relays.

But on Sunday, with her close friend Dahlmeier taking a break, she was called up to anchor the relay. Preuss headed out strong and required only one spare round to clean prone. But by the time she came back to the range for the final shooting, a group of athletes that included Wierer had caught up to her.

Preuss hit the first four targets, and was convinced that her fifth shot had also hit, closing the protective flap on the sights of her rifle, before realizing it was a miss. This forced her to load the spare and take aim again, hitting the target, and left the range with Wierer, who had also required one spare, right behind her.

On the last lap the lead changed back and forth. Preuss later told ARD she deliberately let Wierer overtake her. Then she accidentally stepped on the tails of Wierer’s skis near the top of the first climb, causing both to stop briefly, but neither Preuss nor Wierer fell or broke their poles. At the halfway checkpoint, they were just 0.3 seconds apart.

Preuss then decided to try and force a decision before the stadium by “slogging away on the last climb from the bottom to the top, 100 percent,” and managed to create a small gap. But Wierer refused to be dropped, and caught the end of Preuss’ skis again as they entered the arena. After a right turn into the closing stretch, Wierer double poled past her taking the middle lane, with Preuss on her right trying to hold on. But Wierer had more power left, and lunged over the line 0.2 seconds ahead, into the arms of her excited teammates.

“I know I’m not the best female sprinter. I have to work on that again,” Preuss confided to ARD during a group post-race interview. “The second place is a great result, I think we are all satisfied with that”.

Canada's Megan Tandy blasts through the second leg of the women's relay at the IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria. Tandy's clean shooting helped advance Canada to eighth place at the end of her leg. Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus
Canada’s Megan Tandy blasts through the second leg of the women’s relay at the IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria. Tandy’s clean shooting helped Canada move into eighth place at the end of her leg. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

Her teammates also agreed with her that the Hochfilzen arena poses a difficult challenge for a finishing sprint, with a noticeable incline the last 100 meters.

Wierer had already beaten Preuss and Hildebrand in a sprint to the line in Östersund this season, so she had every reason to be confident that she could do it again.

“I was only thinking that I should run as fast as you can. She was close in front of me. I was hoping I could win in the final sprint,” Wierer told the IBU.

Afterward, both teams seemed happy with their results, with the women all smiling and posing for pictures.

“You can hardly ask for a better selling point for biathlon [than this race],” German coach Hönig said with a laugh. “That’s why millions of people watch us on TV and the arenas are full.”

Asked later why the Italians didn’t seem even more jubliant about their first-ever victory in a women’s relay, Wierer tried to explain: “I think we are just all so tired.”

The Czech Republic, who frequently had the best relay performances last season, also had been in the lead early in this race, thanks to Eva Puskarcikova and Olympic silver medalist Gabriela Soukalova. But then team rookie, Lucie Charvatova – who was sixth in Friday’s sprint and replaced Jitka Landova on Sunday – could not clean her standing shooting with the three spare rounds and thus incurred a penalty lap. After another difficult shooting by anchor Veronika Vitkova, they finished the race in sixth place (1+12), 29.8 seconds back from Italy.

Chervatova only recently took up biathlon training when she failed to qualify for the Czech cross-country senior national team again, and her new teammates are expecting great things from her.

“Just watch, she is incredible, her body is all muscle. In a few years she will be frequently at the top,” veteran Soukalova told the media in Hochfilzen.

The podium was in hot contention with 22 countries at the start line, and with the Czech Republic, Sweden, Austria, France, Ukraine, and Belarus (this year having to race without defending World Cup champion Darya Domracheva) in the top three at various points of the relay.

In the end, Ukraine’s team claimed the third, with anchor Olga Pidrushna requiring three spares but skiing the second best time on the final round. Overall the team, usually known for their excellent shooting, required ten spare rounds to clean all the targets.

“I think there are some things we could improve, so we will work on them this season,” starter Yuliia Dzhyma said in the press conference.

Poland placed fourth, 27.5 seconds back, while France was fifth, (+28.8).

Canada 10th, U.S. 15th

For the relay in Hochfilzen, Biathlon Canada put up a different lineup and order than in the last World Championships in Kontiolahti, Finland. Canada advanced as high as eighth in split times during the race.

Starting in the fourth row in bib 10, Julia Ransom kept the leaders within viewing distance.

“I always like relays so was excited for today!” Ransom wrote in an email. “My legs weren’t as snappy as usual the past two races but things came together for today and I felt much better. I am new to starting relays but I have a background racing cross country and feel comfortable in a mass. This helps with navigating the more technical areas of the course with a group.”

The 22 year old needed two spares to clean the first shooting, then one more in the standing stage. Ransom tagged Tandy in 11th, 20.6 seconds back.

Tandy was able to keep her gap to the best athletes at the top of the field and even improved position, largely helped by two clean stages (0+0, 0+0) and the shortest range time on her leg. At the exchange, she handed off 21.5 seconds back in ninth place. At that time Canada was ahead of top teams like Germany, Norway and Russia.

Emma Lunder took over, and while the 24 year old lost about a minute to the leaders and required four spare rounds (0+1, 0+3), Lunder avoided a penalty lap in the standing shooting. She tagged Canadian anchor Rosanna Crawford 1:23 back in 12th place.

“The 2 k course here is quite easy and has a lot of rolling flat sections, which really plays to my strengths in two skate and one skate,” Crawford wrote in an email. “It’s also a really fast 6 k — the race was only taking 16-17min, which is super fast for a relay. Skiing felt a lot better than it has this year and we had some super fast skis, thanks to our techs.”

Crawford cleaned her prone shooting stage, and only required one spare round in the standing position (0+0, 0+1), making up ground to the top by skiing the fourth-fastest course time on her leg.

“Prone has been feeling really good all year, but I’ve been struggling with one miss standing far too often!”

She finished the relay for Canada in 10th, 1:08.7 behind Italy and just 4.3 seconds behind the Russian team.

“I think this will be a great learning experience for our younger girls on the team,” Crawford continued. “Feel that excitement of doing well in a relay and allow them to be better prepared for the next relay. Overall we are happy as a team, but know with a few less spares that top 8 is within reach!”

“Canada did great today!” Ransom wrote. “All of us had solid races and were in the mix for the most part. I think this was a great place to start from for the season.”

The US Biathlon women’s team also experimented with a new order. Susan Dunklee, who has been the starter for several years, moved to the second leg while Annelies Cook started.

Canadian Emma Lunder powers through the third leg of the women's relay at the IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria. Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus
Canadian Emma Lunder racing the third leg of the women’s relay at the IBU World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria. (Photo: Fischer/NordicFocus)

“We are experimenting [with our relay order] to see what combinations work best for the team as a whole,“ Dunklee wrote in an email. “Traditionally I have started off the first leg, which involves a lot of tactics and is exhilarating, but today Annelies tried it instead and did a fantastic job.”

In her first season starting on the World Cup circuit, Clare Egan, who anchored the team at World Championships and in the last relay of last season, was moved to the third position, with Hannah Dreissigacker closing out the race instead.

“My job today was to try the second leg and chase down the lead pack not far ahead,” Dunklee continued. ” Skiing feels strong and I had nearly regained contact with the leaders, then my extra rounds in standing set us back again.  We didn’t have a perfect day and we look forward to improving on our 15th place in the future.”

Based on the U.S. relay performances last season, Cook started back in the seventh row in bib 20. She opened her race with two misses in prone, then one more in standing (0+2, 0+1), and tagged off to Dunklee 32.0 seconds behind the leader in 14th place.

Dunklee made up some positions, entering the prone stage in 13th place, then cleaned it. On the next lap she caught up with a few more athletes to move into seventh. But then she used all of her spare rounds in standing, narrowly avoiding a penalty lap but losing a lot of valuable time with the reloads. At the second exchange, she tagged Egan 41.8 seconds behind in 11th place.

On her standing stage, Egan struggled, missing four shots in a row and thus running out of spare rounds. In the end, she had to circle the 150-meter penalty lap twice (0+1, 2+3), and tagged off to Dreissigacker 3:08.6 minutes behind.

Dreissigacker fared better, cleaning her prone stage and using two spares in standing (0+0, 0+2). While the clean prone helped her catch a few teams ahead of her, Dreissigacker lost time on the final loop before the finish and ended up 15th (+4:10.9).

In the women’s Nation Cup rankings — important not only for prestige as an own end-of-season award, but also determining the number of starters a country can use in World Cup event — Germany is in the lead after this weekend’s races. Canada ranks 10th and the U.S. stands in 16th.


Seth Adams

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