LE GRAND-BORNAND, France—Justine Braisaz was so excited for today’s 15 k mass start that she jumped the gun, scooting forward on her skis a few seconds before the start and having to reset.
That provoked a laugh among the crowd and perhaps even her competitors, but they weren’t laughing by the time the race finished and Braisaz had left them in the dust, claiming her first World Cup win – on her father’s birthday, no less.
The early start was more than nervous energy. Braisaz wanted to soak in everything in the last race of the weekend, the first time in four years that the biathlon World Cup had come to her country.
“I just wanted to take pleasure today and have no pressure at all,” she said in a press conference after the race. “It’s just like that. I did not have any serious ambition, I just wanted to try my best.”
Once the race was off, she followed Kaisa Makarainen of Finland – who started in the front row directly ahead of her – and Anastasiya Kuzmina and Denise Herrman, and the four women gapped the field to come into the range ahead of the others, a rare situation on the first loop of a women’s mass start.
Braisaz cleaned that stage, as well as the next, and was never far from the lead. When Braisaz and Kuzmina missed shots in the first standing stage, Herrman surged to the lead.
A relatively recent convert to biathlon – a relay medalist in cross-country skiing at the 2014 Olympics – Herrmann has already won two races this season. She has become an impressively stable shooter given her short career, and when she came into the shooting range alone for the final bout she hit the first target.
But then she missed. And missed, and missed. She hit the last shot, but had to ski three penalty loops and came out in 13th. With the third-fastest last-loop time she moved up to twelfth.
Braisaz, in the meantime, had come in to the second lane of the range and hit all of her targets, skiing out in first place. When Germany’s Laura Dahlmeier, the winner of Saturday’s sprint, missed one shot behind her, Braisaz seemed to be in the clear. The next woman out on course was Belarus’s Iryna Kryuko, who had cleaned the whole race and hit the trails 15 seconds back.
But Braisaz felt the threats behind her, real or imagined.
“During the last loop on the track, I just thought, the women behind me will catch me,” Braisaz said. “I was so stressed, under pressure. I did not believe it [would happen]. When I saw my wax man with the French flag, I just started breathing.”
That moment came 200 meters before the finish, when Braisaz had enough of a cushion to stop and grab the tricolore. She waved it behind her as she skied down the finishing lanes, the crowd of 15,000 spectators going more than wild.
“It was just great,” she said. “A very nice feeling to share it with all the crowd and all the French people and everybody. It was just like a dream. But the reality is better actually.”
Kryuko, too, hadn’t felt secure in her position on the last loop. Dahlmeier came out of the penalty loop and into third place, just under ten seconds behind her; after that was Kuzmina, whose ski speed had impressed over the last several weeks.
“I saw that I shot clean – and I certainly saw that behind me there were some very strong girls,” Kryuko said through a translator at the press conference. “The only thing I was hoping for was to get flowers, the top six.”
Dahlmeier put in an early surge to try to close the gap.
“On the final lap I tried to give it everything I had,” she told German broadcaster ZDF. “I fought hard right from the beginning, and immediately went a very high tempo. I didn’t really get closer to her [Kryuko] initially, then made up a few meters, but in the end the necessary energy wasn’t there anymore to really overtake her.”
Kryuko thus held onto second place, finishing 11.2 seconds behind Braisaz. Dahlmeier was third (+19.9), Kuzmina fourth (+25.5), and Germany’s Vanessa Hinz fifth (+28.4). Anais Chevalier gave the French crowd another reason to lose their minds when she crossed the finish line in sixth (+30.1).
For Kryuko, her very first mass start came on the same day as her first World Cup podium. The 26-year-old’s previous best finish was ninth in the pursuit in Hochfilzen, Austria, last weekend.
“It’s my first mass start and of course my first podium,” she said. “It’s a really great feeling.”
Dunklee 20th, Lunder 28th
Both Susan Dunklee of the U.S. and Emma Lunder of Canada started in the back of the mass start, with bibs 26 and 29, respectively. In most World Cups, starting at the back of the pack is not a big problem, as most of the field is still together when athletes enter the range for the first shooting.
“This course it is!” Dunklee exclaimed. “This course it absolutely is. This is a very narrow course… that first bridge, we just had this major accordion-ing, where everybody stopped for about five or six seconds in the back waiting for the top people to get up there. We had to snowplow and then just stand there and wait. We were laughing. So it was a lot of just being really patient on the first loop because there was no good way to pass.”
“Probably 300 meters into the race there is a super steep little hill, and the back of the pack, the back 15, literally came to a standstill and then it took people a lot to get going, and it was so spread out by then,” Lunder said. “So I was last and I just tried to hang on to number 29. I had figured I would come into the range last or close to last, but I felt pretty relaxed during that lap.”
Despite strong races earlier in the week, finishing 10th and sixth, Dunklee never made contact with the leaders – in part because they had broken away already on the first lap when she was stuck in the back, and partly because she missed a shot in the first prone stage.
Dunklee missed two more, one in the first standing stage and then the very last shot of the race.
“With 85% shootings, it was obviously not my best, but certainly something I can be proud of,” she said.
She crossed the line in 20th after laying down the fifth-fastest closing loop and moving up two spots.
“I had a great battle going with Maren [Hammerschmidt] and Selina [Gasparin],” Dunklee said. “Selina got me by a tenth of a second, which is, well, ugh. She had the better lane in the finish and I just couldn’t get around her, but it was fun. I like it when it’s exciting like that.”
Lunder also missed a shot in the first prone, but she was clean after that. She had some issues with her rifle though, which resulted in slower shooting times even though she never again had to visit the penalty loop.
“I was a little bit shaky and I double-ejected three times,” she explained. “So then I had to load a spare and was like ‘okay, do not miss this and then have a penalty loop on top of it.’ I am so happy with shooting 19 out of 20 again, I’m really relieved. And it was a good chase again out there. On the last lap there were two Polish girls right with me, I tried so hard but I just didn’t have it in me.”
She crossed the line 28th, +2:21.4. It was the first mass start of her career.
“This was an awesome experience,” Lunder said. “Any time I finish in the top 30 I think I’ll still be happy… I can say I had fun. It’s like the most painful kind of fun. I felt pretty tired today, and then on top of it everyone is fast in the mass start. So I just knew that I wanted to execute on the range the same way I have been this weekend.”
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.