Strong gusts of wind on the range required strong nerves and a lot of luck in the women’s and men’s relay races that concluded the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Hochfilzen, Austria, on Sunday afternoon.
While the relays concluded with teams on the podium one might expect there, tempestuous weather conditions that at times made it almost impossible to hit the targets also gave outsiders a good chance, and both the U.S. men and Canadian women remained in contention for a long time. The men’s 4 x 7-5-kilometer relay was particularly wild with more than 100 penalty laps, and it began with a big surprise.
Belgium’s starter Michael Rösch tagged off in first place for the first time in the history of that team, representing a country that until now, rarely had enough athletes for a relay and had thus far had a 24th place at the 2016 World Championships to its credit. And on his tails was Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen, and shortly behind them US Biathlon’s Lowell Bailey in third.
The three aforementioned athletes all raced in the Olympic relay more than a decade ago at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, but back then Rösch raced for Germany and won gold with his team.
“I wanted to tag off in first at all costs, to see the Belgian flag at the top,” Rösch told TV broadcaster ARD on Sunday while the race was still going on. “But Ole made it really hard for me. … I was on my last fumes, I tumbled into the finish, I was just seeing black, but it definitely was worth it.”
Just a turn behind, Bailey had gotten off to a strong start for the U.S. team, temporarily taking the lead out of the arena on the first lap before shooting clean in his prone stage to put himself in the lead group of seven. Facing strong wind in his standing stage, Bailey missed two targets but avoided the penalty lap with his last spare in that stage (0+0, 0+3), and tagged off to teammate Leif Nordgren in third position, 23.8 seconds out of first.
Nordgren ended up with a penalty in his first prone after missing two targets, and returned to the course in fifth. While his penalty had increased the gap to first by 50 seconds, Nordgren made up a few seconds with a clean standing bout, hitting all targets without requiring a spare (1+3, 0+0).
Italy and France passed him on the final loop, and Nordgren handed off in seventh, 1:34.2 minutes behind Norway setting the pace up front.
“The team came pretty close to a good result today in a relay with nasty weather,” Nordgren wrote on his Instagram account. “Personally I’m quite disappointed with my skiing, it’s been a struggle to find the top gears so far this season and I’m far from where I know I should be. It’s a long season though and there is still plenty of time to turn it around.”
Taking over next for the U.S. was Tim Burke, who pointed out this was one of the most challenging races in terms of wind that he’d experienced.
“This was definitely one [of the] windiest races that I have taken part in,” Burke wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “We knew it would be very challenging right from the start but our team tried to look at it as an opportunity for a top result. I feel like our team did a great job at avoiding any big disasters on the range and this allowed us to stay near the front for most of the race.”
After only needing one spare in his prone shooting to hit his last target, Burke incurred a penalty in his standing stage (0+1, 1+3), but kept his position on the final loop in a hard race against Switzerland’s Jeremy Finello to exchange still in seventh, now another minute back (+2:49.4).
“I was not surprised to see a mix of different teams near the front today,” Burke wrote. “It was one of those days that any team could find themselves with multiple penalty loops after a windy shooting stage.“
In his prone stage, Doherty again shot clean and fast (with the second-fastest prone shooting time on his leg) and overtook Switzerland to move into sixth. He kept that position on the course, vying for a position in the top five with the teams from France, Italy, Ukraine, and Russia also in his vicinity.
“Today was a crazy one for sure,” Doherty wrote in an email. “The conditions on the course were decent, firm tracks and we had good skis. The wind was whipping, so that really just made some sections a lot harder than normal when you added in the head wind. I have done races in bad weather before but today was amongst the most windy.
In the standing stage, Doherty hit his first four shots in another fast sequence before missing the last one. It looked as if he had thought that final shot was also a hit as he dropped his rifle slightly, but then realized he had to load spares. Unable to clear the last target, Doherty ended up with the team’s third penalty.
“With the shooting you try to get a general idea of how far the wind is pushing the shots and do the best you can,” Doherty explained. “It’s a total toss up and the finish order is just a ranking of who battled the wind the best and had most to least luck along the way.”
He set out on his last loop in eighth place with Ukraine’s Dmytro Pidruchnyi and Switzerland’s Mario Dolder right ahead of him, and Russia’s Anton Shipulin ten seconds behind.
“The fight on the last lap is always tough,” Doherty wrote. “Although I felt better today I was not able to hang with the two guys I left the range with. I was able to ski a good lap but not enough to hold off Anton.”
After Shipulin passed him up the big last climb, Doherty came to the finish in ninth position, 3:38.3 minutes behind the winners with a team total of three penalties and 13 spares.
“We were not too excited with the end result because we saw the potential was there for a top 5,” Burke concluded for the team. “We are also all far from our best on the tracks right now, but are hopeful that will come with more racing.”
Norway Successful with Its ‘Second Unit’
Norway started the men’s relay race without Emil Hegle Svendsen, who was sidelined with a cold, and also rested brothers Johannes Thingnes Bø and Tarjei Bø, both of whom had already won races this season.
But shooting was more important than skiing in a relay decided by strong crosswinds on the range, and that’s where the Norwegians coped by far the best. While Norway also required nine spares, which usually is a rather average performance in a relay, on Sunday this was the top shooting performance of the men’s relay.
After veteran Bjørndalen, Henrik L’Abée-Lund and Erlend Bjøntegaard had created a fairly comfortable lead of almost a minute on the first three legs, Lars Helge Birkeland anchored them to the victory by shooting clean in prone and only needing one spare to hit every target in his final stage despite some widely spread shots.
“It is really nice; a good start for Norway and good self confidence for the the rest of the season,” L’Abée-Lund said at the post-race press conference.
“It’s always fun to compete on the highest level with the best guys,” Bjøntegaard said. “I think I did pretty good on my leg today. It was tough conditions as it was for everyone else. I am just happy to show what I am capable of.”
“It feels great, it was an amazing feeling on the last loop, and really satisfied with my own leg,” Birkeland said. “I just decided to be offensive and attack and don’t think about the others and just do my own race. … We have a really strong team with a lot of good guys, so we don’t need to have all the best at the start to have a chance to win.”
All hopes for Germany’s Simon Schempp to contend with Birkeland for first were dashed when Schempp required three spares to clear both his prone and standing stages, narrowly avoiding the penalty lap twice.
Due to the huge distances between the top-three teams, the final loop was more of a cool down for their anchors, with Norway taking the win in 1:21:21.8 hours, just under two minutes ahead of Germany, with Erik Lesser, Benedikt Doll, Arnd Peiffer and Schempp, in second (+1:54.9, with zero penalties and 17 spares).
“At least we avoided the penalty loop, for me it was definitely close in standing,” Peiffer told German broadcaster ARD. “There was so much wind that it was impossible to shoot calmly and controlled. … It was clear that today there would be some upsets, like Belgium being in the mix in front. You just had to somehow avoid the penalty lap.”
“The last years in Hochfilzen we have never been on the podium, so it’s the first time in like six years we are back again,” Peiffer said at the press conference. “So that’s a good start for us because normally we are struggling here and we don’t know why.”
France, which had rested its star Martin Fourcade and started Jean-Guillaume Beatrix, Simon Desthieux, Emilien Jacquelin, and anchor Quentin Fillon Maillet, finished another 40 seconds later in third (+2:34.0, with three penalties and 13 spares).
Another 20 seconds back, Sweden with Peppe Femling, Jesper Nelin, Sebastian Samuelsson, and Fredrik Lindström crossed the line in fourth (+2:54.8, with three penalties and 12 spares).
“Today was very hard, very strange result, because when we look at all the penalties on the result list it was just crazy,” Beatrix said at the press conference. “I am satisfied for the team, and I am also really satisfied for the newcomer Emilien because it’s his first two weeks on the World Cup and first relay, and he did a every good job and brought us to the podium.”
“Today I was a little bit stressed, because the French guys are so strong and I had to be at their level, so I am happy to do a good relay today,” the 22-year-old Jacquelin said.
And what happened to the brave team from Belgium? With three athletes who had just made an overnight trip from an IBU Cup race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, they came through the second exchange in second place after Florent Claude only needed one spare in standing. On the last two legs, however, three penalties for both Tom Lahaye-Goffart and Thierry Langer put them in 16th at the finish (+6:24.9) , which was still a team-best relay result for Belgium.
Just ahead of them in a finishing sprint anchored by Brendan Green was Biathlon Canada, with a lineup that earned bronze at the 2016 World Championships in Oslo, Norway. On Sunday, however, the Canadians’ race began with difficulties for brothers Christian Gow (1+3, 2+3) and Scott Gow (1+3, 2+ 3), each having to ski three penalty laps and exchanging in 21st position already 4:45.7 minutes back. Then Nathan Smith (0+0, 0+2) and Green (0+3, 0+3) were able to move them up a bit again, with Smith putting them as high as 13th by the final exchange and Green anchoring them to 15th (+6:22.5, with six penalties and 20 spares).
Of 26 teams in the men’s relay, Norway and Germany were the only ones that succesfully avoided the penalty lap.
Hochfilzen World Champs Women’s Podium Repeats
Later on Sunday afternoon in the women’s 4 x 6 k relay in slightly better conditions than the men’s race, last season’s reoccurring winner Germany struck gold again.
The victorious world-champion quartet of Vanessa Hinz, Franziska Hildebrand, Maren Hammerschmidt,and Laura Dahlmeier won with a large lead ahead of Ukraine (+44.9) and France (+1:04.5). The first-, second- and third-place teams were a repeat of last season’s World Championships relay in Hochfilzen this past February.
Fighting for position with Ukraine and Switzerland on the third leg, Hammerschmidt got her team on the road to victory when she cleaned every target within 24 seconds despite difficult conditions to reclaim the lead, erasing the gap she had been handed of almost 30 seconds to first.
“For me it was very important to have a good standing shooting today, because the last two days were not so good,” Hammerschmidt said at the press conference. “I thought it was one of my best standing shootings, and I was so happy to go on the last loop and fight for every second to give to Laura.”
Dahlmeier returned to the World Cup after missing last week’s opening races with a cold, then had no major problems defending the lead. Dahlmeier used just one spare in each of her shooting stages, while Switzerland’s Irene Cadurisch as the closest pursuer had to ski a penalty lap. Germany finished in a time of 1:14:36.4, with zero penalties and nine spares.
“It’s a really cool feeling to be here again,” Dahlmeier said at the press conference. “Especially with the team. We know we can make a good race, but it’s important for every person to be good on the range and on the tracks. Relays are special races.”
“From the last year we have good memories about Hochfilzen … and today it was a good place, too,” Hildebrand said “I was really impressed with [Ukraine’s] Yulia Dzhima’s standing shooting, because she took all targets out while I used two extra bullets and was happy I could go out on the track again.”
Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna anchored her team, with Vita Semerenko, Yulia Dzhima and Valj Semerenko, to second (+44.9), thanks to the best team shooting performance of zero penalties and five spares, and despite a fall on the first leg by Vita Semerenko.
“I think our team spirit is very strong, without that we wouldn’t be on the podium, so I am very thankful to all the girls and our staff for making this happen,” Valj Semerenko said at the press conference, via a translator.
“My start this season was not so good … Actually today I was so nervous ahead of the relay,” Pidrushna explained. “But I saw that we had a little bit of extra time at the last exchange, and I calmed down a little bit and it worked well in the end. … And I think my team believes in me [to anchor it successfully].”
Twenty seconds behind her, France with Marie Dorin Habert, Celia Aymonier, Justine Braisaz and the current women’s World Cup leader Anaïs Bescond, passed Russia’s Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht on the final loop to claim third place (+1:04.5, with two penalties and 13 spares).
“Honestly at the beginning when I started I didn’t think a podium was still possible, but loop after loop I thought maybe I can still catch a podium [position],“ said Bescond, who skied the fastest course time on the final leg amidst strong competition.
A few seconds behind, Russia with Victoria Slivko, Tatiana Akimova, Irina Starykh, and Ekaterina Yurlova-Percht finished fourth (+1:09.0, with no penalty and nine spares).
Another 16 seconds back, Switzerland, with Elisa Gasparin, her older sister Selina Gasparin, Lena Häcki and Cadurisch finished fifth (+1:25.7, with two penalties and 12 spares) for Switzerland’s best women’s relay result, which fulfilled its national qualification criteria for the Olympics.
Canada in Contention
For Biathlon Canada, Emma Lunder started off the race in the middle of the field, and managed hit all her targets with one spare in her prone stage to leave the range in 16th position.
While a number of competitors, including France’s Dorin Habert, incurred penalties, Lunder again needed just one spare to clean (0+1, 0+1) and moved Canada up to 1oth. After losing a few more seconds on her last loop to the leaders, with Germany’s Hinz up front, she tagged Rosanna Crawford in 12th position, 51.7 seconds back.
Crawford started out fast and also needed just one spare to hit all five prone targets, improving by three places to ninth.
“It was a tricky shooting day today, you really had to be aware of the wind, and be prepared to do a correction even part way through a bout of shooting,” Crawford wrote in an email. “In prone I made a correction of 5 left and 2 up and it was enough to keep me pretty centred.”
Then in her standing stage, she picked off four more positions with clean shooting and no spares to leave the range in fifth place, while most teams around her needed spares or even incurred a penalty in seemingly difficult wind conditions.
“I was really happy with my standing today,” Crawford explained. “I saw Brendan [Green] right before zero and he said that it’s worthwhile to take your time and make each shot a good one. So I really thought about that as I came into the shooting, there was a big gust right off the start, so I waited and could hear the women around me missing. Each shot was really precise. My shooting time was 33 seconds which is really slow for standing but still the 2nd fastest of my leg, which says a lot about the wind today!”
Crawford tagged Megan Bankes in fifth (+36.3), after having regained 15 seconds on the leaders and skiing the second-fastest course time on the final loop.
“It’s always fun to tag off in a high position but today was a bit of a lucky draw for what you got in the range,” Crawford concluded.
The 20-year-old Bankes as Biathlon Canada’s youngest team member started out just as fast, nearly maintaining that time gap on the first loop.
“I was super stoked to be tagged in such a good place, but I definitely still felt that I was able to ski my own race,” Bankes wrote in an email. “I wanted to ski my best, and not lose to much time on the tracks, but also be controlled on the range, because I knew it was going to be a tricky shooting day.”
She was able to get through the prone stage with two spares in a stage when all leading teams needed them, keeping her in fifth. Bankes followed that up with just one spare in her standing shooting, temporarily moving up to fourth after overtaking Sweden’s Mona Brorsson.
“Coming into the range I was focussed on my own shooting more than anything else,” Bankes wrote. “I knew that the wind was pretty variable, and that I needed to make sure I took good, smart shots, and correct appropriately for the wind. I was super happy with how I ended up doing on the range, and also with my speed on my first couple of laps.”
On the last loop, Brorsson and Russia’s Starykh passed her, and Bankes came through the final exchange in sixth place (+1:28.8).
“I died a bit at the end, but I still managed to tag Julia in a good position, so for me it was a pretty great race!” Bankes concluded.
Shown on television in the exchange zone, looking back at the final curve to see when Bankes would arrive, Ransom took over as the anchor and skied a very fast first loop, just 1 second off the fastest pace on that loop.
She then managed to still clean all five targets in a controlled fashion, leaving the range again in fifth position, with Switzerland in sight and Russia nearby as well.
After a slower second loop, Ransom struggled to clean all her targets in the final stage, but avoided the penalty lap with her last shot and left the range in ninth position. Sweden’s anchor Anna Magnusson was still in sight, 10 seconds ahead, but extended her lead on the final loop, while Japan’s anchor Rina Mitsuhashi was already more than a minute behind Ransom in 10th.
Ransom crossed the line in ninth place (+2:31.6) with zero penalties and nine spares for the team.
“A top 10 is a decent result for our team, it’s nice that we were fighting for a top 6 for most of the race,” Crawford wrote. “Our team has come a long way and I’m really proud to be a part of this team! Emma and Megan had a great leg and Julia an awesome prone and then it was quite windy for her standing, but most teams have their strongest women on the last leg, so it’s always a hard fight!”
In other good news for Biathlon Canada this weekend, the team finished eighth in an IBU Cup mixed relay and national team member Megan Tandy raced to 11th place in the sprint followed by ninth place in the pursuit this weekend in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
“Another #perfect #shooting day! I was hoping for more, but you gotta work with what you got – in my case very heavy legs skiing. Nonetheless, a solid race,” Tandy wrote on Instagram after shooting clean in both the sprint and mixed relay.
The U.S. Women and Nation Cup Standings
US Biathlon could not start a women’s relay on Sunday because it only has three women currently on the World Cup circuit: Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan and Emily Dreissigacker. US Biathlon had hoped that its fourth woman Kelsey Dickinson, would qualify for the first trimester of World Cup racing by scoring necessary points at the IBU Cup opener in Sjusjøen, Norway. But unfortunately that did not work out.
In addition to Dickinson missing out on the World Cup starts because of that technicality, and her teammates now missing out on one of only three opportunities on the World Cup competition calendar to prepare for the relay in the upcoming Olympics, this also means they lost out on valuable points for the Nation Cup Score. That ranking is its own award category in the World Cup season (last year Germany won it for both the women and men), but more importantly for the North American teams, also determines the starting quota for the following season.
With a third of the races counting towards that already completed (unlike at World Championships the races at the Olympics don’t apply, neither do pursuits and mass starts), the U.S. is currently in 21st position for the women with 676 points and in danger of losing its fourth starting position for next year again, which would make team selections and travel planning even harder.
While certainly not impossible — last year the U.S. women also did not start a relay in Pokljuka, Slovenia — it will be a bit of an uphill battle to make that up the rest of the season, requiring a number of strong results. For instance, South Korea is currently 357 points ahead in 17th, the benchmark for a fourth quota spot.
The Canadian women are currently in 14th position with 1220 points. Last season they were 15th and the U.S. 14th. For the men’s teams, Canada is currently in 12th position with 1260 points, the U.S. is 13th with 1198.
The teams will now travel to Annecy-Le Grand Bornand, France, for the next World Cup from Thursday, Dec. 14, to Sunday, Dec. 17.