Picture some 45,000 rambunctious fans, loud music blaring, a course comprised of 10,000 cubic feet of machine-made snow, a shooting range surrounded by bulletproof glass, 1,300 fir trees as decorations, and 10 biathlon teams representing their nations, all packed into a huge stadium with a retractable roof that’s home to soccer team Schalke 04 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. That’s the setting for the annual “Biathlon auf Schalke” two-person mixed relay show race, also known as the World Team Challenge.
Many international biathletes enjoy the event’s party atmosphere and use it as a fun way to keep their race shape sharp during the holiday break. The outdoor portion of the course meanders through a so-called “winter village” Christmas market, with the smell of food stands for the fans. Trees inside the domed arena form little forests to delineate the track and shooting range. There is entertainment like a “shoot-out” to determine the starting order, an unofficial “Snowball Fight World Championship”, fireworks, and multiple live pop-concert performances.
The 2017 edition took place this Thursday, Dec. 28, and this year marked the second time a Canadian relay was at the start, with Biathlon Canada represented by Rosanna Crawford and Brendan Green. Last year, Megan Tandy and Macx Davies teamed up for Canada in the mixed relay event.
Far away from the Alps in a flat region of the country previously known for its coal mining, “Biathlon auf Schalke”, while not an International Biathlon Union (IBU) sanctioned race, in its 16th season has become an annual fixture during the holiday break, bringing biathlon from the mountains to fans in the city. Each year, it has drawn a huge audiences, both in person and via television in Germany, as well as in a number of other countries where the event is also broadcast live.
“A few years ago Rosanna and I had talked about how fun it would be to race Schalke together, but it never quite fit in well with our schedule,” Green wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “This year the team stayed in Europe over Christmas and we were able to make it work.”
The World Team Challenge relay race is executed in a special format, with the main event split into two “halftimes” (as the organizers call it, borrowing a term from soccer) of a mass start race followed by a pursuit, held the same night after just a very short break.
In both races, one woman and one man form a team and exchange repeatedly, each skiing a short 1.3-kilometer loop and then having to clean a prone or standing shooting stage while not being allowed to use spare bullets — or else ski a shorter-than-normal 75-meter penalty lap — before tagging off to their teammate again. This mode of competition is comparable to the new single mixed relay format in biathlon or the team sprint in cross-country, though the pace might be even more frantic.
“The course was tough, harder than it looked I think,” Crawford wrote. “This race is different to a single mixed relay, where you race for about 12min and then get 12min rest, this was race for about 4min and get 4min rest. Then there was only 15min in-between the two races, so it was quite difficult!”
“The pace you entered the range with skiing full gas on a shorter loop, with the added adrenaline from the crowd, I think for me was the most challenging aspect,” Green reflected in an email on Friday. “I just looked at my heart rate file and it peaked at 188 which is high for me. It never gets that high during a normal race format.”
With the women starting the “first half” pursuit race to a loud cannon boom, the event immediately began with a bit of a mishap for some teams, though Crawford got through it mostly unharmed.
“The first lap was pretty tricky, [Germany’s Franziska] Hildebrand changed lanes right on the very steepest climb and that caused me to ski into her, which then caused a pile up behind me,” Crawford wrote. “It’s a tricky course with not a lot of snow and not a lot of room to pass people, pretty much whoever leaves the range first will be leading the loop.”
Italy’s Karin Oberhofer, a 2014 Olympic medalist who just returned to international competition following a maternity leave, bore the brunt of that pileup — breaking her binding — and had to complete the rest of the loop on one ski.
Due to a number of penalties by both Crawford and Green early on, the Canadian pair initially fell back to the ninth position, before improving a little bit again when Green finally recorded his first clean shooting stage.
“The shooting atmosphere is different,” he wrote. “You don’t have to deal with certain variables such as wind [due to the closed arena], but instead have to deal with a lot of noise, bright lights, and other stimulus. It took a bit of getting used to.”
In the first years of “Biathlon auf Schalke”, the course was a rather flat loop, but in redesigns during the last few iterations the organizers added longer climbs and a fairly steep downhill section leading into a sharp right turn on the part of the track that is winding through the “winter village” outside the arena. It is supposed to now more closely resemble what athletes would see on the World Cup level.
Using artificial snow mostly coming from a permanent ski hall in a nearby city, every loop is 1.3 k long (adding up to more than 10 k throughout the event for each athlete) with about 25 meters of vertical elevation on a climb nicknamed the “Ruhrpott Glacier”, before the athletes enter the pitch inside the arena again via a tunnel, and then having to shoot in front of the 45,000 fans, often with additional music and the noise level amplified in a heated atmosphere.
“The course was quite challenging but it skied well and had surprisingly good flow,” Green wrote. “I anticipated that it was going to be quite physically demanding, but was still surprised at how punishing the racing was on the body.”
While one athlete was out on the track, crews of service technicians hurried to clean and prepare the skis of the athlete who was resting briefly. Unlike in most biathlon formats, where the shooting range is a no-coaching zone during a race, teams were also allowed to receive instructions after each leg and during the short 15-minute intermission between the mass start and pursuit.
“It was great to have Matthias [Ahrens] there, so he would run over to us after each shooting and show us our shots,” Crawford wrote. “Andrzej Lesnik was our wax tech and he did a great job with the skis.”
“We received feedback for our shooting from Matthias, and during the break in-between the races Rosanna and I spoke quickly about our own observations,” Green added. “In the end I think it came down to being a bit more attentive in the range and staying as focused as possible despite what was going on around us.”
The Canadians completed the first part of the event in eighth place, 1:24.1 minutes behind Russia in first.
Green came into the finish just a second behind Germany’s Benedikt Doll, who formed a team with Nadine Horchler (in place of Laura Dahlmeier, after Dahlmeier had to withdraw from the event just the day before due to illness. Organizers had previously hyped up Dahlmeier’s participation, after she had just been voted the German “female athlete of the year” as the first biathlete since Magdalena Neuner).
For the “second half” pursuit, the gaps to first place were halved respectively capped at a maximum of 45 seconds, so even the teams that had completed the mass start at the back of the field should still have a realistic shot at the top positions.
The coaching hints and adaptations on the range seemed to help, as both Canadians began the pursuit with a series of clean shooting stages, steadily moving up in the field. After her penultimate leg, Crawford tagged off in fourth position.
“Both Brendan and I felt better in the second race,” Crawford wrote. “It was too bad we had so many shooting mistakes in the mass start, would have been good to start closer to the leaders for the pursuit race. But after getting out the jitters we were able to shoot much better.”
In close head-to-head shooting duels for the positions on or just behind the podium, both Green and Crawford missed two targets in the next stages, falling back a bit again.
At the end of the pursuit, Green was beaten by inches — or 0.4 seconds — in a finish sprint with Germany’s Erik Lesser (forming the second German team with Hildebrand) and Belgium’s Michael Rösch (starting as a replacement for Slovenia’s Jakov Fak in a mixed-nation team with Ukraine’s Yuliia Dzhima) to finish the race in seventh place, the second-best result for a North American team.
“The last loop was tough,” Green remembered. “I was able to close a small gap to Lesser and Roesch on the last lap which ended in a sprint finish. I kept waiting for an opportunity and thought something might have been possible once we entered back inside the arena towards the finish, but in the end there just wasn’t enough space and we had to settle for 7th.”
“For the finish loop Brendan did a great job closing the gap to Lesser and Roesch, but there is just no room to pass!” Crawford, who had observed the scene from the sideline after completing her last leg, wrote in her email. “6th or 5th would have been amazing, but we are happy to finish 7th!”
Russian Team in Control in Both Stages
Knowing that accuracy on the range was more important than ski speed on a fairly short and narrow course, the Russian team entered two very secure shooters into the event with 2015 individual-discipline world champion Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht and Alexey Volkov, a member of the men’s gold medal-winning relays at the 2014 Olympic Games and 2017 biathlon world championships. The duo incurred the fewest penalties of all teams, only missing four of 80 targets on their road to winning both the mass start race and the following pursuit.
“With Alexey Volkov as my partner I expect everything, and I knew that Alexey is really really fast on the shooting range, and it can bring us the really good result,” Yurlova-Percht said at a post-race press conference.
At the “halftime” the Russian duo in first seemed within reach of a few other teams that were only about ten seconds back, yet in the pursuit they steadily increased their lead. After he had hit his final shot to clean the last stage to secure the victory, the otherwise subdued Volkov celebrated by raising his fist and looking to the stands in a gesture reminiscent of France’s perennial World Cup leader Martin Fourcade. He then rounded the final loop at a relaxed pace before skiing into the arms of the equally excited Yurlova waiting for him at the finish line.
“Our team was working highly focused on the shooting range today, that surely was our big advantage,” their coach Ricco Groß — himself a past winner of the World Team Challenge for Germany in an earlier iteration — told broadcaster ARD in a TV interview right after the race had concluded, according to a translation. “They solved that really well, and accordingly also won in pretty convincing fashion. … The athletes really did a great job today, that should also push our whole team, giving us some momentum and self confidence for the tasks ahead in January and February. … The atmosphere in the stadium here is gigantic, it is just crazy and incredibly fun here.”
“I want to say thanks a lot to all spectators who visited this competition today,” Yurlova added in the press conference. “This was an amazing atmosphere, and perfect feelings of support. I am really happy that all spectators were supporting not just their teams, but they were supporting everybody. And also when me and Alexey were shooting everybody was supporting us the same like the German teams.”
Both athletes had previously raced at Schalke, with Yurlova winning in 2012 with partner Anton Shipulin and placing fourth in 2015 with partner Evgeniy Garanichev as her best results, and Volvok placing third a year ago with Olga Podchufarova.
“I already thought before the start that we could win,” Volkov said, via a translator. “I have to say the course was very good, not at all flat, and if you take some risk going into the downhill anything can happen. … Today before the start I was trying to find an empty seat in the stands before the start, and I couldn’t see any. This is not just about motivation, this is a celebration [of biathlon]; you just have to be there.”
Looking over to the German team sitting next to him as the local representatives, Volkov added. “I am sure Erik [Lesser] shot faster than me today, but you know how statistics are, sometimes it’s better to shoot two seconds slower and hit everything.”
With nearly as solid shooting performances as the Russian team, the Czech Republic represented by Eva Puskarčíková and Ondřej Moravec stood in second after the mass start, behind Yurlova and Volkov (+9.2 seconds), then held that position in the following pursuit (+24.0).
Austria with Lisa-Theresa Hauser and Julian Eberhard (replacing Simon Eder on short notice) finished the World Team Challenge in third place (+43.5).
After the mass start they had been in fourth position (+10.3) just behind the Czechs and the French team of Anaïs Bescond and Emilien Jacquelin in third (+9.7). In the pursuit race Eberhard secured the position on the podium in the final shooting stage when he hit all targets standing on the range in a duel against Germany’s Lesser and France’s Jacquelin, who incurred more penalties. France finished fourth (+58.4), also slightly hampered by a fall and broken pole for Bescond during the race.
Crawford and Green were the sixth North American team to be invited to the “Biathlon auf Schalke” race and the second Canadian one. In 2008 and 2009, Lanny Barnes and Jay Hakkinen represented the US (placing ninth and sixth for the best finish by a North American team to date), in 2010 Tracy Barnes-Coliander and Tim Burke (10th), in 2012 Susan Dunklee again with Tim Burke (10th), and in 2016 Megan Tandy with Macx Davies for Canada (10th).
“Brendan and I really loved competing in Schalke!” Crawford summarized their experience. “It was like nothing we’d ever done before! There have been big crowds at World Cups and World Champs, like Nove Mesto and Oslo … but this was so different with having 45 000 people all packed into a soccer stadium! … I am really glad Brendan and I got to compete in this race once in our careers!”
While the International Biathlon Union (IBU) has adopted the mixed and single mixed relay formats in the last years as new disciplines to make the sport more attractive, “Biathlon auf Schalke” is an invitation-only race not promoted or hosted by the IBU, so there were no World Cup points to win in the event. However about €156,000 ($185,000 U.S. dollars) in prize money was awarded.
The regular IBU World Cup will resume on Thursday, Jan 4, in Oberhof, Germany, with a women’s sprint race.
- Yurlova-Percht / Volkov (RUS)
- Puskarcikova / Moravec (CZE) + 24.0
- Hauser / Eberhard (AUT) + 43.5
- Bescond / Jacquelin (FRA) + 58.4
- Dzhima / Roesch (UKR/BEL) + 1:13.3
- Hildebrand / Lesser (GER) + 1:13.5
- Crawford / Green (CAN) + 1:13.7
- Horchler / Doll (GER) + 1:34.1
- Oberhofer / Windisch (ITA) + 2:00.4
- Tachizaki / Tachizaki (JPN) + 2:08.4
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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.