After Ukraine, Germany and Italy occupied the podium in the first two International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup women’s relays of the season, on Sunday it was time for three other nations to shine in front of more than 20,000 fans in a packed arena in Antholz, Italy.
On a beautiful day with blue skies, almost no wind, and surrounded by the spectacular mountain scenery of the South Tyrolean Alps, the French team with Justine Braisaz, Anaïs Bescond, Anaïs Chevalier, and Marie Dorin Habert shot well and skied fast to stay near the top throughout the 4 x 6-kilometer relay. Habert as the anchor received the tag with a 10.6-second buffer to Russia in second, then closed out the race with clean shooting in both stages, eliminating any chance of other teams challenging her.
After she crossed the finish line in first for France with a time of 1:07.53.5, her teammates hugged her enthusiastically. Overall the French women shot no penalties and required just eight spare rounds.
“It was a very nice race for the team,” starter Braisaz said during the post-race press conference. “I was a bit [too] excited on my first shoot. But it was a good experience to start the relay. And I am very happy today.”
“A very happy end to my week,” her teammate Bescond told the media. “Today I felt very good on my skis. I think all of the team made a very good job.”
“I am very tired, especially this week,” Habert said, reflecting on her season and the race. “It’s a very good thing to finish in the first position.”
“This is the first time we tried our relay for the World Championships [in Oslo], so it’s important to [get] a good position to see that this formation of the relay is functioning,” she later said in another interview with the IBU.
On the last loop, the Czech Republic, Russia and Italy battled for the positions on the podium, with Veronika Vitková able to create a small gap to secure second place for the Czech team, 17.2 seconds behind France.
Initially, the outlook didn’t look good for the Czech Republic, after second-leg Lucie Charvátová skied two penalty laps and slipped to 12th at the exchange. Later she could be seen in the finish pen with tears in her eyes, while being consoled by team staff.
“After my leg I didn’t think [it would be possible to come back], because I was such a bad shooter in each relay I started this year. So I was afraid, afraid all race, all year,” Charvátová, 22, said during the press conference. “I am so under pressure. So I am very happy, because those other girls are the best.”
Her veteran teammates, World Cup leader Gabriela Soukalová and Vitková turned the race around with solid shooting and fast skiing, recording the best and fourth-best course times on their legs, respectively, to capture second. Overall, the team incurred two penalties and required seven spare rounds. It was the best performance for the Czech relay team this season, after two sixth-place finishes before.
“It’s very surprising,” starter Eva Puscarciokova said during the press conference. “I am very happy today, because it was very hard after my race in Ruhpolding [Germany] when I went to the penalty loop.”
Third place on the podium went to the Russian team with Ekaterina Shumilova, Anastasia Zagoruiko (who replaced Daria Virolaynen from the last relay in Ruhpolding), Ekaterina Yurlova, and Olga Podchufarova, finishing 21.2 seconds back, with no penalties and 10 spare rounds.
Yurlova, Saturday’s pursuit winner, lifted her team from sixth to second, skiing fast — with the second-best course time of the third-leg skiers — and only needing two spares.
“I am really happy about my leg, and especially about my standing [shooting],” Yurlova said at the press conference. “Because I am really, really tired after two competitions before. And now I was really afraid about my standing. It was all shaking, but I am really happy that I could do it clean. Overall I am really satisfied about this World Cup.”
In the finishing stretch, Italy’s anchor, Dorothea Wierer, and Russia’s Podchufarova (who had beaten Wierer in the sprint last Friday) fought for third, as they had done earlier this season at the end of the relay in Ruhpolding, Germany, where Italy came out ahead. But this time, Podchufarova prevailed, to the huge excitement of her teammates who immediately ran into the finish area and piled onto her. Wierer crossed the line just 0.5 seconds behind (+21.7), after having made up nearly 15 seconds after the final shooting.
“My only thought was to come into the finish in the third position,” Podchufarova said in the press conference. “I didn’t know at first that [Wierer] was behind me, only when I came into the stadium I saw it on the monitor. Then I tried my best to get the third place for the team.”
“I wanted to go on the podium, but I was too [many] seconds behind,” Wierer said in a post-race interview with the IBU. “On the finish line I couldn’t anymore, because I was flushed pushing from the first loop, and in the final I had no more energy.
“It was a really nice [weekend], but I am a little disappointed today,” she added with a laugh. “You want always more and more, that is the problem.”
Norway, with Kaia Wøien Nicolaisen, Fanny Horn Birkeland, Marte Olsbu and Tiril Eckhoff, had been in third position behind France and Russia coming into the last shooting, but Eckhoff — a fast skier who has struggled with her shooting all season, hitting 68 percent of her standing targets — again had problems and ended up skiing a penalty lap. She finished fifth for Norway, 47.1 seconds back from France, with a team total of one penalty and 10 spares.
“I had the opportunity and screwed it up. This was real sh*t. This was not the way I wanted to end [my] last World Cup race before the World Championships,” Eckhoff told Norwegian broadcaster NRK after the race, noting she and her coaches were aware of some technical corrections she still plans to implement.
Ahead of the upcoming World Championships on their home turf in Oslo, the Norwegian women have yet to reach the podium since earning bronze in the relay at the 2014 Olympics.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the day was Sweden, with Emma Nilsson, Mona Brorsson, Ingela Andersson, and Linn Persson, in sixth place (+50.5) just 3.4 seconds behind Norway, with no penalties and seven spare rounds.
After the race, the Swedish women claimed they knew they were on a very good trajectory this season.
“We expected it,” Brorsson said during in a group interview with the IBU.
“We really thought we had a chance to be top six,” Andersson added.
They credited their coach, Wolfgang Pichler, for their improved performance, after he helped several Swedish biathletes, such as Magdalena Forsberg, Helena Ekholm and Anna Carin Olofsson (now Zidek) reach Olympic and World Championship medals, before returning last summer after a stint with the Russian biathlon team.
“I think that’s the big difference this year,” said Brorsson. “He always finds a way to motivate you. On the track, he is incredible. He knows what he is doing.”
Ukraine, winner of the last relay in Ruhpolding and usually a team with very solid shooting performances, had some difficulties on the range on Sunday and finished ninth (+1:45.5). The team with Iryna Varvynets, Valj Semerenko, Olga Abramova (replacing Juliya Dzhyma) and Olena Pidhrushna stayed near the front for most of the race and Semerenko even exchanged in the lead. But Abramova needed five spares, and anchor Pidhrushna had to ski a penalty lap, setting them farther back (12 spares overall).
Similarly, Germany had been in second place for both relays this season. On Sunday, with their regular anchor Laura Dahlmeier taking a break after a respiratory infection, the team struggled almost right out of the gate. Starter Karolin Horchler required five spare rounds and only narrowly avoided the penalty lap in her prone stage, leaving in last position at that time. She tagged off already a minute behind the best in 15th, before Miriam Gössner and Vanessa Hinz moved up a bit, but each incurred a penalty to slow down the chase. Anchor Franziska Hildebrand still managed to improve her team two positions on her leg, ultimately finishing 10th (+1:51.8).
“I don’t know why, but my legs felt like a sewing machine today in standing, that hasn’t happened to me in a long time,” Gössner told German TV broadcaster ARD in an interview while the race was still going on. “I stood there, and already from the first shot my legs were shaking so much that I really didn’t have myself under control anymore. Even though I went slowly on the prior loop. I tried to fight and prevent the penalty lap, but unfortunately I did not succeed.”
“My race was all right. All in all I am satisfied,” Hildebrand told ARD. “We somehow struggled a bit in Antholz. Next time it hopefully will be better again for us. There are weekends where not everything works out, and this was one of those.”
Switzerland, with Saturday’s pursuit runner-up Selina Gasparin, started the relay very strong, with Gasparin tagging off in the lead, and her younger sister Aita Gasparin keeping the team in contention in fourth. Then two less-experienced skiers closed for Switzerland, with Irene Cadurisch tagging off in fifth place, before anchor Ladina Meier-Ruge faded a bit and lost two minutes to the front. They finished 12th with nine spares, one place ahead of Canada.
Canada 13th, U.S. 17th
After achieving her first-career top 20 in Saturday’s pursuit, Canada’s Julia Ransom had said her team was “fired up” for the relay, and that they were eager to reach the top six after feeling they had come close in ninth a week ago in Ruhpolding.
Unfortunately on Sunday, the performance on the shooting range did not allow that to happen for the Canadian team with Ransom, Rosanna Crawford, Megan Tandy, and Zina Kocher.
Starting as the scramble leg, Ransom missed two targets in her first prone stage, then required all three spares to clean them, narrowly avoiding the penalty but only leaving the range again in 18th position, already 41 seconds back.
After skiing a fast second loop (with the third-best course time, seventh-best overall) and a clean standing shooting, she moved the team back up significantly and tagged Crawford in ninth place, 32.2 seconds behind the top.
Crawford had two solid shooting performances, requiring one spare round in her prone stage and two in standing. Skiing the 11th-fastest second-leg course time, she brought her team close to the top six in seventh place, just 32.5 seconds out of first.
Tandy skied a very fast first loop (fourth-best), and came through her prone stage with two spare rounds, leaving still in 10th position. After a slower loop, she then struggled in her standing position, and was unable to avoid the penalty lap (0+2, 1+3), losing a minute to the top. She tagged off in 13th place (+1:58.7).
Kocher as the team’s anchor initially held 13th and had a solid first prone shooting with one spare round, but lost another minute on the next loop. In the final standing, similar to Tandy, she also ran out of spares and had to ski a penalty lap, leaving the range in 14th and more than four minutes behind the leaders. On the final loop she was able to pass Bulgaria’s anchor Daniela Kadeva, finishing 13th for Canada (+4:12.2 minutes) with two penalties and 15 spare rounds.
In an email, Biathlon Canada’s head coach Matthias Ahrens explained that the team was packing up Sunday afternoon, driving to Munich, Germany, then flying back to Canada early Monday morning. The Canadian athletes could not be reached for immediate comment.
“Women’s race started excellent with Julia and Rosanna, then unfortunately Megan and Zina could not match that Performance,” Ahrens briefly noted about the women’s result before leaving Antholz.
The U.S., with Clare Egan, Susan Dunklee, Annelies Cook, and Joanne Reid, adapted its lineup order a bit again on Sunday compared to the first two relays, with Egan starting and Cook moving to the third leg.
“Today I got my first mass-start experience at the World Cup level,” Egan wrote in an email. “It reminded me of how much I thrive on head-to-head racing. The decision was made with the intent of giving me that head-to-head experience, both because it will be useful in the future for pursuits and mass starts, and because I think my coaches thought I would like it.”
She skied at a steady pace in the middle of the field, and required just one spare in each of her shooting stages.
“The altitude is a challenge here, for the skiing of course but also for recovering before the shooting,” Egan wrote of the biathlon trails situated some 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) above sea level. “The range approach does not provide rest, so I have been making rest for myself by skiing into the range extra easily.”
“There was a light wind but it was constant, so with the correct sight adjustments the wind was not a factor,” Egan explained. “I had super fast skis and put them to good use passing people on course, but then despite using only one spare round per stage, I still lost places on the range to faster shooters.”
On the last loop, Egan sped up her pace and skied the sixth-fastest course time of her leg, catching six other teams in front of her to hand off in 12th place (+53.9)
“The highlight for me was on the last lap when I passed Team Germany,” she wrote.
After receiving the tag from Egan, Dunklee set out fast with the best course time on her first loop, but then required three spare rounds in her prone shooting. After skiing her second loop at a slightly lower pace, she managed to miss only one target in standing. She slipped two spots to tag off in 14th (+1:10.1), with the third-best course time overall.
Cook was initially able to hold that position, despite requiring two spares in her prone. Then in standing, she used all three spares and had to ski a penalty lap. That set her back to 18th place, more than three minutes behind the leaders. She tagged off still in that position (+3:36.7).
In the second World Cup weekend of her career, Reid, 23, skied as the U.S. anchor for the second time. She posted the ninth-best course time on her first loop and managed to shoot clean in prone, but then was lapped by the top teams after another penalty in her standing. That kept Reid from skiing her last loop and ended the race for the U.S. in 17th place with two penalties and 14 spares. Estonia and Romania behind them were lapped as well.
Next Stop: Canmore/Canada
The IBU World Cup picks back up again in two weeks in Canmore, Alberta, with sprints on Thursday, Feb. 4 and Friday, Feb. 5, followed by mass starts on Saturday, Feb. 6, and single-mixed relay (1 woman, 1 man) and mixed relay (2 women, 2 men) relays on Sunday, Feb. 7.
Several strong athletes will not make the trip overseas, notably several members of the Norwegian team, such as Eckhoff and Synnøve Solemdal, citing a focus on instead preparing for the upcoming World Championships.
Sitting in second in the overall World Cup standings, Habert plans to be there to fight for more points: “Just five days to recover, and then we will fly to Canmore,” she said at the press conference.
“We are still in discussion with the coaches about the best approach,” Germany’s Hildebrand told ARD. “In order to stand nicely relaxed and regenerated at the start in Oslo.”
Note: The U.S. men placed sixth in the men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay to match a season best, despite using 13 spares and skiing a penalty lap, with Lowell Bailey, Tim Burke, Leif Nordgren, and Sean Doherty. Canada’s men, with Christian Gow, Nathan Smith, Macx Davies, and Scott Gow, placed 11th with eight spares and no penalties.
Stay tuned for a complete report on the men’s race.
- 4 x 6 k relay
- Anais Bescond
- Anaïs Chevalier
- Anastasia Zagoruiko
- Annelies Cook
- Antholz relay
- Antholz World Cup
- Clare Egan
- Ekaterina Shumilova
- Ekaterina Yurlova
- Eva Puscarciokova
- Gabriela Soukalova
- IBU World Cup
- Joanne Reid
- Julia Ransom
- Justine Braisaz
- Lucie Charvátová
- Marie Dorin Habert
- Matthias Ahrens
- Megan Tandy
- Olga Podchufarova
- Rosanna Crawford
- Susan Dunklee
- Veronika Vitkova
- Zina Kocher
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.