France was determined to win the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup 13.5-kilometer single mixed relay on Sunday in Canmore, Alberta, using their best athletes with men’s overall World Cup leader Martin Fourcade and Marie Dorin Habert, who ranks third in the women’s standings. And they succeeded in convincing fashion, finishing first in 37:58.0 minutes, with four spares and no penalties.
The first time the new race format was on the calendar this season at the World Cup in Östersund, Sweden, the French duo of Dorin Habert and Martin’s older brother Simon Fourcade thought they had won the race, but because Fourcade had not fired a shot during the competition the team was slapped with a four-minute penalty, putting them back to 21st place.
On Sunday morning, France made no such mistakes and didn’t leave the other teams any chance in nearly a start-to-finish victory. Dorin Habert took the lead out of the arena, stayed there for most of her leg and tagged narrowly in first place, before both Fourcade and Dorin Habert expanded their lead on the next three legs with good shooting and fast skiing. Fourcade put an exclamation mark on the victory by sprinting into the finish despite knowing he had a comfortable lead of more than half a minute on the final loop.
“It was a really exciting race. I like these kind of short races. I tried to be as strong as Martin, it’s an honor to run with him,” Dorin Habert said at the post-race press conference. “It was in our head before the competition to win, but this is biathlon and everything can happen on the [shooting range].
“I tried to train the finish, I think that was a good opportunity,” Fourcade explained during the press conference. “But I actually didn’t compete the full last loop,” he added with a smile. “I only did for some parts, the ones in front of the TV.”
“Today I was satisfied even if I needed two extra shots, two too much,” Fourcade later told the IBU in an interview. “It was a good competition for both of us.”
Second place went to the Austrian duo Lisa Therese Hauser and Simon Eder, 45.2 seconds back, with eight spares and no penalties. It was Hauser’s first World Cup podium.
Norway’s Hilde Fenne and Lars Helge Birkeland secured the third spot on the podium, 55.3 seconds back, with seven spares and no penalties. Birkeland defended his lead on the final loop, coming into the finish two seconds ahead of Russia’s Olga Podchufarova, who teamed up with Alexey Volkov to finish fourth (+57.3), with no penalties and just two spares.
New since the 2014/2015 season and only held for the third time at the World Cup level on Sunday, the single mixed format was established by the IBU to have another action-packed event and give “smaller” biathlon nations a shot at the podium. For some countries, it presented an opportunity to start a team event. It is not yet a part of Biathlon World Championships or Olympic Games.
“The single mixed relay is interesting for smaller nations, because they maybe don’t have five women and five men who can compete with the top, but maybe one or two,” Canadian head coach Matthias Ahrens told German TV broadcaster ZDF in an interview before the race. “Then you can use those in the mixed or single mixed relay, thereby potentially getting a chance to reach the podium, which worked pretty well for us at the season-opening in Östersund [where Canada placed second].”
On Sunday, some teams, such as France — though not an example for a “small” biathlon nation — Austria and Latvia (in eighth place), made use of that by putting their best racers in the event. Other teams decided to focus on the “normal” mixed relay, with two women and two men on each team, that followed later on Sunday in Canmore.
The single mixed relay features the shortest loops in biathlon, with the athletes skiing a 1.5-kilometer loop between each shooting stage, then immediately exchanging after the standing shooting. After the female team member starts and shoots one prone and one standing stage, she exchanges to her male teammate, then the woman gets tagged again to ski the third leg (six kilometers total), and the man closes out on the fourth anchor leg racing an additional 1.5 k after the final standing shooting, which adds up to the odd 13.5 k distance. The athletes are allowed to use three spare rounds per shooting like in a normal relay, and the penalty lap is also shortened to 75 meters (usually 150).
Thus the whole race is extremely fast-paced, and rather resembles a cross-country team sprint than a traditional biathlon or cross-country relay.
“This was a new start for me in the World Cup, because I never did a single mixed relay before,” Fourcade said at the press conference. “I already did it a lot during the show competitions like Schalke [World Team Challenge in late December] or Moscow or Tyumen [Race of Champions, another invitational at the end of the season]. I really love that. But it was different today … with the pressure of the World Cup… I think the single mixed relay is really good for biathlon.”
“The single mixed relay is a super fun race format, but you really have to shoot well to have a chance,” U.S. Biathlon’s Annelies Cook wrote in an email.
“Certain abilities are demanded, especially ‘shooting efficiency,’ ” Ahrens told ZDF. “That means you need athletes who, first of all, can shoot well and hit, but also shoot very fast.”
Conditions on Sunday were good throughout the race, with calm winds and the sun shining in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, after the athletes had struggled with snowfall and strong gales in the previous days.
“I think we were all satisfied to know that it would be fair and beautiful conditions. It’s the [kind of] biathlon we love,” Fourcade said in an interview with the IBU.
“Today was the best snow conditions of the week. There was a light wind, but it seemed pretty consistent,” Canada’s Nathan Smith wrote in an email.
France steadily expanded its lead throughout the race. At the first exchange, Dorin Habert tagged Fourcade in first, just 0.4 seconds ahead of Sweden. Fourcade slightly expanded that lead to 6.5 seconds over Russia in second place by the next exchange, and then Dorin Habert cleaned both shooting stages on her second leg to balloon the gap to 50.1 seconds over Norway in second. Essentially, Fourcade just needed to go through the motions on his last leg to lock up first.
Before the final shooting, Germany’s Erik Lesser had been in second place behind Fourcade. But unable to clean his targets and running out of spares, Lesser incurred a penalty lap and ended up seventh (+1:29.6), as teams passed him with better shooting. Lesser and teammate Luise Kummer combined for one penalty and eight spares.
This brought back some painful memories from the first time a single mixed relay was held in a year ago in February 2015 in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic. Lesser and Kummer had been in the lead before the final shooting, then Lesser slipped into fourth with a penalty.
After Sunday’s race, suffice to say Lesser wasn’t happy.
“Does anyone still want to see that? I don’t!” Lesser quipped when the interviewer in the mixed zone asked him to take a look at a replay of his targets in the final shooting stage. “It really doesn’t matter where those [shots] went, I just didn’t hit, fired four really poor shots,” he added after taking a glance at the fairly close misses. “If Mark [Kirchner, men’s head coach] wants to chew me out for that, I hard-earned it.”
“On the first spare I was already thinking, ‘Oh great, this is going the same way as last year,’ ” Lesser continued. “On the second leg I struggled, I tried to keep the others at bay on the course so they would not catch up, but I somehow didn’t move well, got tense on the shooting range, and then the misses happened. I am completely annoyed, mega-disappointed… This is the World Cup level, so you should also be able to hit with tired legs.”
Kummer used four spares and was also disappointed, but didn’t pin the blame on Lesser.
“A [single mixed] relay is comprised of two people, everything has to work out, and that mistake can happen to everybody,” she told ZDF. “You are always happy yourself to get through [a relay shooting stage] unscathed, so that shouldn’t be a problem…. I still think it’s a very exciting competition for the spectators, very fast-paced exchanges. It doesn’t have the same standing as a relay or mixed relay yet, but one can see that it is developing.”
Lesser’s troubles allowed Austria’s quick-shooting Eder to pass him and secure second place, after he and Hauser had been just outside the podium ranks for most of the race.
“I am really happy about this podium today. It’s my first one. I dreamed about it, and today it worked,” the 22-years-old Hauser told reporters at the press conference. “My shooting was not so good especially in prone. Simon and I are both fast shooters and also good shooters, but today it was not the best.”
“I felt great on the course, I always could keep up or even close gaps,” Hauser added in an Austrian Ski Federation press release. “On the shooting range I let the stress get to me a little bit, that caused the spares. But of course I am overjoyed by the podium finish.”
“The first turn did not go according to plan on the shooting range. I had problems with my ski poles and used too many spares,” Eder, 32, said in the press release. “But the second turn went all the better, I could really push the tempo also on the shooting range. Finally we have a place on the podium also in a mixed relay.”
In the absence of their usual stars that are skipping the North American World Cups in the leadup to 2016 World Championships at home in Oslo, the Norwegians still reached the podium with Fenne and Birkeland, who both improved on their second legs to move from seventh at the first exchange to third at the finish. (Birkeland also won the first single mixed race of the season, though with Kaia Woeien Nicolaisen as his partner.)
“I am not sure why, we just always try to do good races,” Fenne said during the post-race press conference when asked why Norway seems to do so well in the single mixed relay. She added that the coaching staff picked the lineups for Sunday, so she didn’t know why she was put on the single mixed relay instead of the four-person mixed relay.
Canada 12th, U.S. 16th
Representing Canada at home in Canmore, Julia Ransom, who is competing in her first full World Cup season, teamed up with veteran Nathan Smith, who raced to second in the Östersund single mixed relay with Rosanna Crawford.
This time, the Canadians ended up nearly two minutes off the podium in 12th (+1:54.3), with 10 spares and no penalties.
On her first leg, Ransom used one spare round in her first prone, but then required all three spares in standing to narrowly avoid a penalty lap.
“It was hard, very hard,” Ransom said in a Biathlon Canada press release. “I haven’t done that format before. I felt that one for sure. This is the first time I’ve done a relay with Nathan so it was lot of fun for me, and a great experience.
“I was bouncing around at the start and maybe nerves got to me a little bit because I didn’t know what to expect,” she added. “The techs just told me to ‘reel it in.’ ”
After the first 1.5 k, she tagged Smith 47.0 seconds behind in 19th of 23 teams. On his first leg, Smith cleaned prone without any spares and only required one spare in standing to keep his distance to the top, handing off to Ransom 49.2 seconds back in 11th.
“We unfortunately fell back pretty early in the race. Julia had some difficulty in the range,” Smith wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “The time lost loading spares is even more penalizing when the loops are so short. The format itself is pretty fun to race, and quite a bit different from traditional races. It’s almost more like two races back to back with a little break. It suits my quick shooting speed really well.”
Ransom cleaned her next prone stage as she had done repeatedly in recent weeks, but with two more spares in standing, she lost a minute to the top.
Still in 11th when he received the tag, Smith again hit all targets in his prone stage, but required three spares in his last standing to avoid the penalty lap, approximately holding his gap to the leaders.
“Other than my last standing my [two relay] legs went really well. Prone felt amazing. Probably almost the best ever. Just fast, easy and accurate,” Smith wrote. “I ended up battling a lot with [Latvia’s] Rastorgujevs. He surprised me by matching my shooting speed. He’s always one of the fastest out there. It was too much for me to hang on to on the last lap.”
“It was my best race this week. The legs felt a lot better today. Not amazing, but quite good until that last lap,” Smith said in the team press release. “One of the toughest things to do is race at home with the pressure we put on ourselves with our friends and family watching all the volunteers we know out here. I obviously wanted to peak here and do well but there are so many factors that come into play. It was a great experience racing at home that we’ll be able to take with us.”
For the U.S., Cook teamed up with Leif Nordgren. In Östersund, their teammates, Clare Egan and Sean Doherty finished 15th in the single mixed relay. This time, the Americans finished in the same range in 16th place (+3:20.1), with one penalty and 14 spares.
After using just one spare in her first prone stage, Cook incurred a penalty in her first standing stage, quickly disappearing out of the focus of the TV cameras, tagging Nordgren in 20th, about 1:05 behind the leaders.
“I felt good on skis and was in the mix, but I had a hard time holding back in the skiing and was probably breathing too hard to shoot well in standing,” Cook wrote in an email. Her course time ranked seventh fastest of the first-leg skiers. “My penalty in standing took us too far from the top to have contact.”
Nordgren needed two spare rounds in prone and another one in standing, losing about another 30 seconds to the top teams on his leg (+1:41.3) as he tagged Cook in 18th.
“This format is for sure a little different than a typical relay,” Nordgren explained in an email. “The pace is usually fast right from the start, and because the loops are so short it really puts all the focus on the shooting since its hard to really break away on such a short loop. It’s nice to have that difference, but you really have to be on top of your game in the shooting to be competitive.”
On her second leg, Cook again emerged from prone with just one spare, but needed another three spare rounds to clean her final standing stage and avoid another penalty. When she exchanged back to Nordgren, the U.S. was 3:04.7 out of first in 20th.
“The race does feel like a cross country sprint. But what makes it hard is knowing that you still have to hit targets, and finding the balance between all out sprinting and going just at the level where you can manage to hit your targets is tricky,” Cook wrote. “I just tried to make up time lost on the range by catching up on skiing as best as I could. There were a few of us together each lap, so it felt like a competition between that group of people.
“I had a hard time holding back because I really love sprinting, and that probably kept me from hitting in standing,” she added. “That put Leif on a position where he had to try and chase people down. He did a really good job of that and I was proud of him for catching people in the last loop.”
On the anchor leg, Nordgren mirrored his performance from his first round, again requiring two spares in prone and one in standing, but only lost 15 more seconds to the leaders and leapt to 16th by overtaking Romania, Slovenia, Belarus and Finland.
“Today neither Annelies nor I really had a great day on the range so we had a hard time to stay with the top teams,” Nordgren concluded. “The tracks were in perfect shape today which is always nice. Our techs did a great job to give us fast material, but we weren’t able to put it to good use.”
In the exchange zone, several teams could be seen using spinning bikes to keep warm and stay loose during their race breaks while their teammate was out on the course, something the Norwegians pioneered for the single mixed relay in Östersund, though the Americans and Canadians opted for a traditional warmup.
“I just ran around to keep warm,” Cook wrote. “It’s not a big break and we don’t have a team bike. But running was totally fine for me.”
“During the break both of us just opted to jog around, being that it’s such a short race, it’s more important to stay warm any way possible,” Nordgren wrote. “Today was the first day in a several that the wind was pretty low, so that made staying warm a little easier.”
“I just jogged around while Julia was doing her second leg,” Smith explained in his email. “I considered using a spin bike but decided it would be best to practice like at World Champs.”
Moving on to Presque Isle
The IBU World Cup now moves east to Presque Isle, Maine, with sprints for the women and men on Thursday, followed by pursuit races on Friday, and traditional relays on Saturday (men) and Sunday (women).
“Today was the best I’ve felt in a couple weeks. I hope my shape continues to return to normal through Presque Isle,” Smith wrote.
While Smith continues to work to hold his own in the overall World Cup standings (he’s currently 19th), the rest of Canada’s A-team, those pre-qualified for World Championships, will skip the Presque Isle World Cup and train in Canmore until Feb. 22, according to Crawford. That includes Crawford, Ransom, Sarah Beaudry, Brendan Green, Scott Gow, Christian Gow, and Macx Davies.
Smith and a women’s contingent of Emma Lunder, Zina Kocher, Audrey Vaillancourt, and Erin Yungblut will head to Maine, and after those races, the Canadian team will select its fourth woman for World Championships.
“I think we’re … looking forward to racing next week on home soil in Presque Isle,” Nordgren wrote on behalf of the U.S. team. “I haven’t raced there for about 5 years, so it will be fun to be back!”
In the four-person mixed relay that followed Sunday afternoon, the U.S. notched a team-best fourth with Susan Dunklee, Hannah Dreissigacker, Tim Burke, and Lowell Bailey, while Canada tied its previous best of sixth, with Crawford, Beaudry, Davies, and Green. Stay tuned for a separate report.
Note: Presumably due to a software bug, the IBU’s competition analysis report for the single mixed relay contained erroneous ranks for data such as course and shooting times, with higher numbers than the 23 teams that started in this race, so no such information was used for this article.