Over her 12-year storied biathlon career since the 2004/2005 season, Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen had failed to reach the spot at the top of the podium during any World Cup race in Germany despite more than 50 race starts there.
But this weekend at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany, the 34 year old ended that streak and made it two for two, following up a sprint win on Saturday with a victory in the women’s 10-kilometer pursuit on Sunday that seemed never in doubt. She crossed the finish line in 30:58.0 minutes with just one penalty (0+0+1+0), more than a minute ahead of her closest challenger.
Maybe not thinking too much about her lead after the sprint was the winning strategy.
“Sometimes I was thinking about the results too much before the race and I never got a good race,” Mäkäräinen explained at Sunday’s post-race press conference. “When I finished thinking about which place I will get I have got better races. In biathlon you never know what will happen, better to live in that moment.”
In significantly improved conditions compared to the heavy snowfall during the men’s pursuit on Sunday morning, the preliminary decision happened early in the race when the Czech Republic’s Gabriela Koukalová and Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, who had started closest to Mäkäräinen each shot two penalties in the first prone stage while the Finnish biathlete stayed clean.
Her lead to Italy’s Dorothea Wierer, as the next challenger who avoided the penalty lap in the first stage, increased to 69 seconds. And after just one more miss for the rest of the race, Mäkäräinen’s lead didn’t dwindle much, as she repeatedly returned to the course before her competitors even had arrived for the shooting.
“It was fun, I was really enjoying the race,” Mäkäräinen said at the press conference. “Here in Ruhpolding there are a lot of people watching, a big support all the way. And on the shooting range I didn’t feel that much pressure. I tried to enjoy that moment, coming on the range alone with all the crowd cheering for me.”
After her initial setback, Koukalová shot flawlessly in the next three stages (2+0+0+0), including in the critical last shooting to claim the second place on the podium (+1:00.9), while the next three women chasing her all had to ski a penalty lap.
“I am very happy that I am feeling a little bit more stable than in the beginning of the season,” Koukalová said at the press conference. “But it’s becoming harder and harder [with] every start… I don’t know what happened [in the first shooting], I tried to focus for all targets but, I don’t know, sometimes it happens.”
France’s Marie Dorin Habert finished third (1+0+1+1, +1:23.1), defending her position on the last loop against an attack by Dahlmeier, who struggled a bit more on the range to place fourth (2+0+1+1, +1:32.7).
“Of course I am very happy about this position,” Dorin Habert said at the press conference. “I was very afraid [of Dahlmeier] on the last loop that she will come back… I don’t know if I prefer the pursuit to the sprint, I try to be strong in each race. But yes, this year the pursuit is better for me.”
Dahlmeier managed to overtake Sweden’s Hanna Öberg on the final loop but could not catch up to Dorin Habert.
“I am totally knocked out, I really exhausted myself,” Dahlmeier told German broadcaster ARD. “I felt strong on the course, but already had to ski alone or in front a lot during the prior loops. In the end I tried to bring out everything I had left, but I was just knocked out … We will have to analyze why the shooting misses especially in standing happened, but a fourth place now isn’t bad. “
The 21-year-old Öberg finished fifth (+1:39.4) with just one penalty in the final stage (0+0+0+1) for the best result in her first World Cup season. Last season, Öberg had been one of the stars of the Youth/Junior World Championships in Cheile Gradistei, Romania, winning the sprint and pursuit there and finishing second with Sweden’s relay.
“This is crazy,” Öberg told IBU TV in a post-race interview. “Fantastic. I was really confident on the range today. I am just a little bit sorry the last [shot] went out, but it’s incredibly good … I am taking a huge step since last year, and it’s so fun to see that I am closer to the lead.”
Dunklee Improves to 24th
American Susan Dunklee’s plan to catch up after starting 33rd (based on her sprint result the day before) hit an early setback when she missed three targets in her first prone stage, where Koukalová and Dahlmeier also had two misses.
Former German biathlon head coach Uwe Müßiggang mused in an analysis for ARD that the venue in Ruhpolding sometimes can become tricky due to thermal lifts in certain weather conditions creating hard-to-predict wind shifts.
“I am not entirely sure what went wrong in my first prone,” Dunklee wrote about her shooting in an email to FasterSkier. “There was more wind than at zero [pre-race target practice], but I checked the wind flags and took corrections. I don’t know if there are any funky thermals here. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with prone shooting on point 1 in Ruhpolding; I’m more familiar with how the wind works on points 10-15. Overall I am very happy with my shooting times today.”
But Dunklee didn’t let herself get discouraged after slipping back to 51st place when she came back on the course.
“You can never count on your position to hold steady in a biathlon race,” Dunklee said, according to a US Biathlon press release. “Whether you are in the lead or bringing up the rear, the task is the same … focus on one lap at a time and one stage at a time. It was disheartening to miss three in the first shooting stage, but my job was to continue executing my race plan no matter what.”
She went on to hit all but one shot in the next three stages (3+0+1+0), while also posting the eighth-ranked course time of the day — including the fastest time on the last loop, where she passed four more competitors to finish 24th (+3:07.2).
“The course was not deep, but if you strayed out of the narrow skied-in track, the fresh snow was excruciatingly slow which made it very extra difficult to pass,” Dunklee wrote in her email. “I posted my best ski splits of the year. My race shape has taken longer to come around than I expected this winter and I was a little worried about it. This performance gives me lots of confidence going forward.”
After also incurring two penalties in her first prone stage, Biathlon Canada’s Julia Ransom skied near the back of the field throughout the race and finished 53rd (+6:21.2) with three penalties (2+0+0+1).
Her teammates Rosanna Crawford and Megan Tandy were slated to start the pursuit in 55th and 56th, respectively, but chose not to race Sunday to get some additional rest. On her Facebook page, Tandy wrote, “The #goodnews: I’m not sick, nor have I been kidnapped or snowed in! The #badnews: no race for me today. We decided at the last minute that resting and recovering for next week is smarter than racing today.”
The IBU World Cup continues next week in Antholz, Italy, with the women’s 15 k individual on Thursday, Jan. 19, and the men’s 20 k individual on Friday, Jan. 20.
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.