On Friday, the starters in the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup women’s sprint enjoyed some of the nicest weather longtime veterans of the sport ever witnessed in Oberhof, Germany. The next day for the 10-kilometer pursuit, the traditional biathlon venue in the heart of the Thuringian Forest mountain range showed its extremely windy and cold side again.
“Today was back to a bit more normal Oberhof, except that it was really cold, -10 [degrees Celsius, 14°F] and with the wind more like -15 [5°F], so lots of cold feet and hands out there,” Biathlon Canada’s Rosanna Crawford wrote in an email to FasterSkier.
Crawford finished the race as the top North American in 22nd (+3:47.9) with four penalties (0+1+1+2).
In the unstable weather conditions, three experienced athletes who reached the podium in the sprint prevailed once again. Only the positions for the ceremony were flipped, with France’s Marie Dorin Habert claiming the spot at the top in a time of 34:33.3 minutes with two penalties (1+0+0+1), ahead of Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová (+38.8 with three penalties) and Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen (+1:19.1 with four penalties).
But even these biathlon veterans struggled with sharp gusts that made the wind indicator flags on the range flutter horizontally to the right. After incurring her first penalty in the third shooting following two clean stages, Koukalová resorted to a squat to calm her shaking legs. This problem can occur in standing stages when the heart rate of an athlete drops too low while waiting a long time on the shooting mat for the wind to quiet down. It paid off, with the Czech able to hit all remaining targets in that stage.
“I was so nervous that my legs started to shake very hard,” Koukalová said with a laugh at the press conference. “I was not able to shoot, so that’s the reason why I did what I did.”
“I was feeling very tired, because I could not sleep the last two nights,” she added. “I don’t know why, but it was difficult when I started to watch the clock at about four o’clock in the morning… I believe today I will have a better recovery.”
Dorin Habert was able to cope better with the wind, shooting clean in the third stage and only adding one penalty in the final standing bout, while her closest opponents all missed at least two targets. She returned to the course with a lead of almost 30 seconds, which she was able to defend into the finish.
“I just tried to attack my shoot[ing], I know that the wind will stay the same,” Dorin Habert said of her strategy for the final stage at the press conference. “I just said in my head, ‘If I wait my leg will start trembling, so I have to attack’. Today I was lucky, but maybe if I try the same tomorrow I will [have to] make five penalty loops.”
She said her teammate Martin Fourcade’s win in the men’s pursuit earlier in the day motivated her.
“Like every time, I just said, ‘Woah he is very strong,’ and he shoots always clean even if the conditions are bad. So I tried to do the same,” she said.
Mäkäräinen missed two targets in the final standing stage, but managed to stay in third skiing out of the penalty lap and back onto the course with a comfortable one-minute lead when Germany’s Maren Hammerschmidt as her closest challenger shot three penalties to finish fourth (+2:05.9 with five penalties).
Mäkäräinen has never won a race in Germany despite more than 50 World Cup starts there, and also has not won a race yet this year, but she was not too disappointed about the missed opportunity.
“I am always happy when I am on the podium,” Mäkäräinen stated at the press conference. “The women’s races are always tough, and are becoming [even tougher] year by year. Of course it would be nice to sit in the middle [of the podium, where the winner stands], but I think and hope that the day will come… The end was quite heavy, and I was happy that I did not have to ski full speed on the last loop.”
“After the three misses I would not have thought that [reaching the fourth place] would still work so I am very satisfied,” Hammerschmidt told German media after the race, initially skipping past the waiting reporters due to exhaustion and the cold temperatures.
Also notable for the second race of her “comeback weekend” just three months after having her first child, Belarus’ former Olympic champion Darya Domracheva placed 34th (+4:25.5) with six penalties, after starting out in 37th and posting the seventh-fastest course time.
With her second place, last year’s overall World Cup winner Koukalová (formerly Soukalová) took the lead in that ranking again with 419 points, just ahead of Mäkäräinen with 414 and Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier with 410 points, who skipped the Oberhof sprint and pursuit, but plans to return for the mass start on Sunday. Dorin Habert is currently fourth in the standings with 399 points, and more than half of the season still to come.
Crawford Again Leads North Americans
After starting the race in 21st following her best result of the season with clean shooting in Friday’s sprint, Canada’s Crawford struggled with the challenging wind and freezing temperatures on Saturday just like most other athletes, incurring four penalties (0+1+1+2).
“The wind for my prone was pretty consistent, my miss [in] prone was me, just not quite focused enough, same with my first standing miss,” Crawford recounted in an email. “My last standing bout was a different story, really inconsistent wind and cold fingers made it hard to hit the target.”
Despite posting the 45th-ranked course time, she nearly held her starting position from the start to finish 22nd (+3:47.9).
“I am happy to have stayed in the top 25, but again skiing was rough,” Crawford wrote. “Girls would just crush me on the first climb. Luckily I had some really great skis today and could catch back some time on the downhills and flats.”
“The potential was there for a really great race even with four misses, but my ski speed has been holding me back,” she said, according to a Biathlon Canada press release. She was the lone Canadian to qualify for the pursuit.
After starting out in an unfavorable 50th position based on her sprint result, American Susan Dunklee was unable to pick off too many places with nine penalties (1+3+4+1) on Saturday, while skiing the 29th-ranked course time. She finished 44th (+6:20.4).
“We had cold temperatures amplified by a brisk wind,” Dunklee said of the conditions, according to a US Biathlon press release. “I tried to draft someone on every loop entering the stadium because of the strong headwind. I am capable of shooting a lot better than I have these past couple days and now I am focusing on putting together a strong performance for tomorrow.”
Dunklee’s teammate Clare Egan started the pursuit in 52nd and finished 49th (+7:25.6) with seven penalties (4+0+0+3) with the 40th-ranked course time.
The Oberhof World Cup concludes with mass starts on Sunday. No North American men qualified for the 15 k mass start, but Dunklee as the 17th-ranked woman in the overall World Cup is slated to start the women’s 12.5 k mass start. On the provisional start list, Crawford was listed among the “reserve standby athletes”, based on her recent results in Oberhof, should another qualified athlete have to cancel (e.g. due to illness).
Crawford was still hopeful to get another racing opportunity in Oberhof: “Would be great to be in the mass start tomorrow!”
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.