“I know I will probably feel tired, but everyone else in the race will be exhausted from the past month so that shouldn’t be a big problem,” US Biathlon’s Susan Dunklee predicted in an email to FasterSkier on Friday.
Several other athletes had echoed this feeling of really looking forward to a break, including France’s Marie Dorin Habert and Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, winners of the IBU World Cup races last Friday and Saturday, respectively.
A bit of mental and physical exhaustion toward the end of a long stretch of eight races was evident in the women’s 12.5-kilometer mass start race on Sunday afternoon. Even athletes who had already been highly successful this season skied slower and shot more misses than usual. At least one woman seemed to be at the top of her game: Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen.
After achieving third place in Saturday’s pursuit, the two-time Overall World Cup champion improved on that by winning the mass start in 34:40.2 minutes.
Despite a penalty lap in the first prone shooting, which set her back to 20th place, with her skiing strength as the fastest athlete on the course and three-consecutive clean stages thereafter (1+0+0+0), Mäkäräinen was able to close the gap to the leaders again.
On the final loop, she managed to distance herself from the Czech Republic’s Gabriela Soukalová and Russia’s Olga Podchufarova, two athletes who cleaned the entire four-stage race.
“When I had one penalty in the first prone, I thought the day would not be that good,” Mäkäräinen said in the post-race press conference. “But I decided it would be my last mistake for this competition!”
On the third loop, she had come back to the top of the field and was skiing in a small group with Soukalová and her Czech teammate Veronika Vítková. Both strong skaters with the eventual fifth- and seventh-fastest course times, they nonetheless had no chance to keep up with Mäkäräinen when she decided to push the tempo.
She came first into the final shooting and fired before the others had reached their positions, hitting all her targets, and left the stage 4 seconds ahead of Soukalová in second. On the last loop, she almost tripled that lead until the finish.
Soukalová finished second, 11.8 seconds back, and Podchufarova placed third, 27.7 seconds after Mäkäräinen. Vítková was fourth, 12.5 seconds off the podium, with her only miss in the final stage.
For Mäkääainen, the win was her 17th in an IBU World Cup and her second one of the season.
Asked in an English interview with German TV broadcaster ZDF if the improved shooting was most likely reason for her recent successes, Mäkäräinen said, “Probably. It seems like all the women are shooting really well, and skiing times are more and more close to each other, so I cannot do that much on the course even if I feel strong. So I also need to shoot well.”
“I now plan to go home to Joensuu [Finland] to spend time with my family, with my parents,” Mäkäräinen said when asked about her plans for the holiday break.
“I think the first week is a little more easy, and then I will start preparing for Oberhof [Germany, the site of the next World Cup races Jan. 6-10].”
Runner-up Soukalová was satisfied with her result, commenting in the press conference about the race and about Pokljuka in general, the site where she achieved her first World Cup victory.
“I am so happy, I was feeling that I lost energy from yesterday,” Soukalová said. “My teammate Veronika Vítková was helping me on the track. Pokljuka is my favorite destination, I would like to continue to be on the podium here.”
After Vítková had shot a miss in the final shooting, Podchufarova was still able to overtake her to grab the final spot on the podium. It was the Russian’s first World Cup podium, and while this result might have been unexpected to outside observers, she believed she executed her game plan well.
“I am not surprised. I had a certain plan before the competitions, and everything went according to the plan,” Podschufarova said at the press conference. “I was almost the last one at the start, as I was trying to take it slowly and save my energy for the final loops.”
Podchufarova added that she expects this result will also help her team, since this was the first podium for the Russian women this season.
“I think it’s because of the last preparation period, it was hard for us to start,” she said. “With this podium, things will get easier as the pressure will be off.”
At the halfway mark, 22-year-old Norwegian Hilde Fenne had been in the lead, after creating a little gap to a larger chase group. But in the first standing, she missed three of five shots and lost almost a minute in the penalty laps. She finished in 16th place with four penalties (0+0+3+1), 1:40.2 minutes back from Mäkääainen.
Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser, also 22, was one of four athletes in the women’s field to clean all four shooting stages, but could not quite keep up with the fastest skiers on Sunday, coming in eighth place (+1:08.7) to tie her career best.
“Four times zero, that’s amazing. The mass start seems to be my race,” Hauser told Austrian TV broadcaster ORF. “I am almost surprised it worked so well today because the last two days were quite hard. Today I even could improve on the track during the course of the race. I am super happy. Now I can really enjoy the holidays.”
Dunklee was the lone North American to qualify for the mass start as the best athlete outside of the top-25 due to her results in the preceding two races (sixth in the sprint and 10th in the pursuit) in Pokljuka. She finished 22nd (+2:29.5) after missing four targets throughout the mass start( 1+0+1+2).
Starting out of the ninth row in bib 26, Dunklee initially attempted to improve her position on the first round, but broke or lost a ski pole early in the first loop. After recording a miss in the first prone, she exited the penalty loop in 22nd place, already 31.9 seconds behind the leaders.
After the second loop and a clean second prone shooting, she improved to 16th and 38.4 seconds behind. She skied a strong third loop with the 11th-fastest course time, but a miss in the first standing prevented her from moving up more, as she fell back 30 more seconds to 19th place.
Then in the final shooting, Dunklee had two more penalties, almost doubling her time back behind the leaders to 2:11.6 in 22nd place. She kept that position to the finish, only losing a bit more time to Mäkäräinen.
New Women’s World Cup Leader is The Old One
On Saturday evening, a proud World Cup leader Martin Fourcade posted a picture on Twitter that showed himself and teammate Dorin Habert both holding up the “yellow bibs” of the Overall World Cup score leaders, with the caption “this does not happen every day!”
While Fourcade was able to defend his position on Sunday, Dorin Habert, who had said in a press conference after the pursuit that she hoped, “I won’t wear it just for one competition,” didn’t get her wish granted after finishing seventh on Sunday.
When the World Cup resumes in Oberhof next month, Soukalová will be the woman in yellow again, leading the overall standings with 359 points to Dorin Habert’s 345. After eight competitions, Germany’s Franziska Hildebrand is in third place (307), while Mäkäräinen moved up to fourth (278).
“This is really good motivation for me,” Soukalová said. “I know that the season will be long. We will have a lot of competitions, and girls are very strong. We will see.”
Dunklee improved to 27th place in the World Cup standings with 97 points, and Biathlon Canada’s Rosanna Crawford, the other North American in the top 30, ranks 29th with 91 points.
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.