By mid-afternoon in Östersund, Sweden, on Sunday, Norway had already claimed a win in the mixed relay. But there was another event still on the schedule: the single mixed relay, a relatively new format with just one man and one woman per team, skiing short loops of a kilometer and a half. Each athlete skis and shoots twice, then tags off, then repeats: two relay legs each for a total of eight shooting bouts.
While Norway had put their best athletes in the traditional mixed relay — perhaps because it is a World Championships event, unlike the newer format, and some teams considered it important to have relay teams begin to gel — a few other countries had decided to put all their eggs in the single mixed relay basket.
Namely: France, who paired the two most successful athletes of the 2016 IBU World Championships into one team toeing the start line. Marie Dorin Habert was never far from the lead, and by the time Martin Fourcade crossed the finish line 16 seconds clear of second-place Austria, he made it look like just another training session.
“The single mixed relay is that kind of competition when you have to be in both: a good shooter and good skier,” Fourcade said in a post-race press conference. “I am satisfied about my fast prone shooting.”
The French pair used just four spare rounds total across the eight shooting stages, representing some of the best shooting of the field.
“As we all know, Fourcade and Marie Dorin are a tough pair to beat,” Canada’s Nathan Smith wrote in an email.
Second place went to Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser and Simon Eder, who, like the French, were nearly perfect on the range; the pair combined for six spare rounds. Eder, a constant threat for individual wins, had the crux performance in the anchor leg to hold off Erik Lesser of Germany. But it was 22-year-old Hauser, who had her first two World Cup top-10s last season, who surprised by turning in the fastest third-leg time of the field.
“Of course it is great to stand on the podium already in the first race,” she said in an Austrian Ski Association press release. “Today the second loop on the first leg was surely the hardest to race, because the tempo was extremely high at the start.”
Lesser and German teammate Franziska Preuss finished third (+25.2).
“I am happy that I came through the shootings fine today,” Preuss said in an interview with German television station ZDF. “I tried to shoot fast because it’s a single mixed relay, and two misses is alright. I already noticed during the summer that I took a step forward, became more consistent, technically clean in my skiing, and just going all-out.”
Canada followed France and Austria in putting their top athletes in the two-person race, and the strategy had previously paid big dividends. Last season, Rosanna Crawford and Nathan Smith had a breakthrough in this event and finished second in Östersund, the first relay medal ever for the team. The pair were together again on Sunday, and ended up seventh (+1:44.7).
Crawford led out of the start and stayed out of trouble in the chaotic mass start, but then used two spare rounds in her first prone.
“I really wanted to start strong and get to the front of the pack so I could control things a little bit more, and I’m happy with how I executed that part of my race,” Crawford wrote in an email. “I struggled a little bit with prone today but had some solid standing which was nice… my first loop I felt quite strong and then things just got a little bit slower from there, some heavy concrete-feeling legs. We got here from Canada late Wednesday evening, so still dealing with a bit of jet lag.”
Despite feeling heavy, Crawford had the fifth-ranked times for both of her relay legs; Smith’s were ranked 10th and 13th.
“We knew that a medal would be possible today but everything would have to go our way like last year,” Smith explained. “Rosanna was definitely strong enough to put us in contention. If I had felt better and perhaps using a couple less spares it would have been possible to threaten for a podium. It also seems like a few more teams put their strongest two athletes in the mix this year.”
Smith mentioned that he had been dealing with fatigue in the last few weeks before leaving for Europe, but thought that he had his health sorted out. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether he would get off to the same start that saw him place ninth in the sprint this opening week in both 2015 and 2014.
“I had some good feeling intensity sessions shortly before travelling to Europe,” he wrote. “I’ve generally had some strong results in Östersund the last few years. However this has only been the case maybe 50% of the time in the relays, so I know not to be overly concerned with perhaps a rougher than hoped-for start physically.”
Crawford is also hoping for strong performances when individual racing kicks off later in the week. She won two trials races in Canmore, Alberta, before leaving for Europe, as well as two cross-country ski races against some of Canadian national team.
“Even though I had some strong races in Canmore, it’s hard to know how you’re going to compare against the Europeans,” she wrote. “This race is so short and so quick on such a small loop that it’s hard to know how this will relate to our longer individual races. I think it was a really good opportunity to blow out the cobwebs and get ready for the races for the rest of the season. I learned a few things about shooting that I need to work on and am happy to have two days to fine-tune those things.”
The American team of Joanne Reid and Leif Nordgren had a penalty loop and seven spare rounds, finishing 19th; they were lapped before completing the race course.
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.