Last Races Until Beijing – I truly can’t believe it but the next time we see top level biathlon races is going to be at the Winter Olympics in China. I feel like I’ve been anticipating these games since the closing of the Pyeongchang games four years ago. I have shared before but I grew up, like many reading this probably did, in a family that just couldn’t get enough of the Olympics. During those two weeks the TV didn’t go to other channels. It’s like they didn’t exist. That was my first exposure to biathlon and it was during the Vancouver Games that I truly fell in love with it. Well it’s time for the Olympics again and I can’t wait! But before we get there, let’s take a look at what happened this weekend in Antholz, Italy.
Best Overall Men’s Performance: Johannes Thingnes Bø – Yep you read that right. Defending champ JT Bø makes his return as owner of the performance of the week. He’s been clearly off his game a little all season. Then the last time we saw him in Oberhof it was the worst weekend performance he’s put out in many years. He took last week off not to go to training camp but to go to do his own training at home and spend time with his family. Looks like getting his mind right was the right was the right plan.
JT Bø came back looking not only faster than he has all season, but more confident on the range. For the weekend he went 44/50 on the range. As the week went on he began to shoot quicker on the range as well. In the Mass Start he actually had the fastest range time of the day and he had the 3rd fastest range time of anybody who participated in the relay. Bø didn’t look as dominant as he did last year and certainly not what he was at his peak. But its miles better than he was just 2 weeks ago when he looked completely lost. And with QFM starting to show some cracks and Jacquelin clearly off his form, that has to be a scary proposition for the rest of the men in the Olympic field. It may not be the overall season that JT Bø might have hoped for but if he walks away from Beijing with a handful of medals including a solo gold I don’t think he’s going to worry about it at all.
Best Overall Women’s Performance: Dorothea Wierer and Justine Braisaz-Bouchet. I tried my best to make an argument for one of these women over the other and you know what? I couldn’t do it. Both had a win and a 5th place finish. Both had five missed shots on the weekend. I think it’s okay to say they both had awesome weekends. What’s amazing is how different their paths were to this weekend.
Dorothea Wierer is now completely justified now in her season’s strategy. She’s already won two overall crystal globes and at the current stage of her career, even if she put full effort into it, she likely wouldn’t be challenging Roeiseland, Elvira Oeberg, or even Alimbekava this year. Just last season she finished 154 points behind Roeiseland and Roeiseland is even better this year. However the thing that will make the greatest impact on her legacy is a solo Olympic gold medal. It’s the one thing she doesn’t have. She’s clearly geared her entire season towards giving herself the best shot at a gold. That included sacrificing November/December in order to be ready for now. Over the last month you could see her form coming on. Here’s a look at her finishes since the start of Oberhof: 10, 15, 3, 7, 5, 1. And here are her ski ranks: 36, 26, 13, 12, 7, 2. She’s definitely in peak form at the right time for her last best shot at a solo Olympic gold.
Justine Braisaz-Bouchet doesn’t have the history of Wierer. She’s solid if not an outstanding biathlete. However she does have a defining characteristic: speed. She has consistently ranked in the top 10 of ski speed including in the top 5 each of the last 3 years. This year she and Elvira Oeberg are well above the rest of the pack in speed. However it’s been her shooting that has always held her back. This season she currently ranks 125th in shooting accuracy with a season total hit rate of just 76%. She’s had as many races with a total hit percentage of less than 70% as above 85%.
This weekend though she went 19/20 as she won the Individual in one of the most shocking results (at least to me) of the season. She followed that up with a 16/20 in the Mass Start that saw her finish 5th just 24 seconds back. Not surprisingly her best finishes of the season were in Sprint races as they allowed her to use her speed and gave her the potential to minimize her risk as the range with just 10 shots For non sprint races this season her previous best finish was 9th and previous best hit rate was 85% both in the Pursuit in Ruhpolding. Over her last 4 races she’s shot 90%, 85%, 95%, and 80%. Which are 4 of her 5 best shooting performances of the season. Like Wierer is Braisaz-Bouchet also putting it together at the right time or is this just a hot streak and a little luck? It’s too early too tell but if she really did put it together that’s a major curveball just in time for the Olympics.
Best Young Men’s Performance: Sturla Holm Laegreid. This is a bit like deja vu right? JT Bø as the Best Performance of the Week and Laegreid as the Best Young Men’s Performance. That was basically all of last season. When they were head and shoulders above the rest of the competitors in the World Cup overall rankings by this point of last year. For Laegreid, though, he’s shown improvement in each of his two weekends of competition this season. In Oberhof he showed renewed speed, actually even better than last season. It was the same story this weekend in Antholz. He finished 5th in the Individual and 3rd in the Mass Start with top 5 course times in both races. What is holding him back from wins right now is that he’s gone from being one of the best shooters to being just slightly better than average. For some solid numbers: Last season he shot 92.6% for the season and this weekend he was just 85%. The speed is there. The shooting just needs a touch up before the Olympics.
Best Young Women’s Performance: Marketa Davidova – Not a lot of great performances from the young women this week but Marketa Davidova had the best with her 6th place in the Individual. It was close though as Vanessa Voigt did finish 7th in the Mass Start which was her best ever finish. Davidova did what she needed to do in the Individual shooting 17/20 which was just a bit better than average. She also showed off some ski speed with the 9th fastest race (she was 5th fastest in the Mass Start) which is decidedly better than her season average. In fact the 9th/5th combo for ski rank this weekend is her best of the season. She proved last season with two 2nd place finishes in the World Cup that she can rise to the occasion in big moments so if she can take that speed to China she’s got a chance. I don’t know that I would call her a favorite for a medal in the Olympics but I do think she’s going to be in the mix in at least one race.
Best Race Men: Individual – I’m going to go with the Individual but for a slightly sideways reason. It wasn’t necessarily because it was a tight race at the top, which it was with Babikov and Tarjei Bø separated by just 10 seconds. It’s because it was our first look at the return of the Norwegian men and it indicated a true return of the Norwegian men. Tarjei Bø (2nd), JT Bø (4th), and Laegreid (5th), all looked like true competitors for the win at various points in the race. It was their ski speed which was most impressive. JT Bø was 1st, Tarjei Bø 2nd, and Laegried 4th fastest of everybody in the race. Christiansen who finished 13th was the 6th fastest. Even if you were to add the Swedes back to the race they would still be looking at their fastest times of the season. Most impressive of all was the speed JT Bø showed at the start of the race. He was 15 seconds faster than his brother on the first lap. Really encouraging for the Norwegian fans.
You also saw the Russian men, and the French to a lesser extent, flex their muscles each placing 3 in the top 10 as well. Babikov, who won’t be in the Olympics, won the race, Khalili finished 3rd, and Loginov finished 7th. For the French Desthieux was 6th, Claude 8th, and Jacquelin 10th in his only race of the weekend. American Paul Schommer was the only interloper of the top 10.
To be honest what this race did more than anything was get me excited for the Beijing and especially the relays. Norway vs. Russia vs. France could be a heck of a thing!
Best Race Women: 4x6km Relay – What a crazy crazy race. Here’s just a simple way of knowing how wild this race was. The following teams were at some point in the lead: Sweden, Belarus, Russia, Italy, Czech Republic, and Norway. Going into the last leg there were 8 teams within 30 seconds. Norway, after the 4th shooting, was 1:30 back and in 14th place. Russia finished 2nd place with 3 penalty loops. The Czech Republic was in position to have a shot at the win when Lucie Charvatova slid off the course and lost 30 seconds on Tandrevold, and then lost more time on the range due to snow in her rifle. Team USA had their best relay since 1994. And there was a photo finish for 3rd place. This was a wildly entertaining race.
Yellow Jersey Update: I’m actually going to spend even less time this week than I did last week:
a) Men: QFM raced but not very well. He finished 20th in the Individual with 5 misses and 8th with 6 misses in the Mass Start. Samuelsson wasn’t racing and Jacquelin only raced the Individual where he finished 10th. The result is QFM gained a total of 3 points on his chasers. However the true take away here is QFM had 11 misses in 2 races. Shooting just 72.5% is by far his worst of the season. You could argue quite easily that QFM would have been benefited more by not racing at all. He only gained 3 points but he also gained a lot of bad mental images on the range. Having that as his last experience before the Olympics is not idea to say the least. Especially because he had to watch JT Bø, Tarjei Bø, and Laegreid all start to look really good again. Also this was just the opening that Samuelsson or Jacquelin needed if they are going to close the gap at all. They are going to need QFM to get tight on the range and lose his form on the course. Even that may not be enough but there is a narrow opening.
b) Women: Neither Roeiseland nor the Oebergs raced. But Alimbekava did and she took advantage to move up to 2nd just 62 points back of Roeiseland. It’s not an impossible margin to overcome. If Roeiseland falters at all, even for just 1 weekend, that race is going to be very tight. That’s absolutely not impossible. And Elvira Oeberg is still lurking.
Team Germany Update: We did have a long discussion about Team Germany last week and one of the things that we noted was that were yet to have a win on the season. Well that ended this week! Benedikt Doll ended the skid with a win in the Mass Start. Doll had a terrific race. He never let JT Bø shake free and actually beat him on the course. To be fair that was only by 1 second and JT Bø clearly let up when he wasn’t able to catch Doll for the win. Shooting 19/20 was tied for the best shooting in the race. That’s how you win!
1.Sportsmanship – The men’s Mass Start started off a terrific show of sportsmanship. Anton Smolski skiing closer to the front of the pack stepped out his ski. Vytautus Strolia, skiing in his first career Mass Start and closer to the back of the pack, deftly picked up the lost ski and handed it back to Smolski. It is moments like that that you learn a lot about somebody. He had no time to consider it and Strolia’s instinct was to be a good person and help Smolski, his direct competitor. I’ll definitely be a fan of Strolia from here on out!
2. Team USA Big Weekend: Team USA had an incredible performance this weekend. It started with Paul Schommer setting a personal best finishing 9th in the Individual race. Clare Egan did him one better by finishing in 4th place in the women’s individual which was the best finish for an American in 2 years and her 2nd best finish of all times. Then the women’s 4×6 relay squad finished 5th which was the best American relay finish since 1994. What made it more impressive was that there was really no indication that this was coming. Apparently the training they’ve been doing to prep for Beijing has really been paying off. They also took advantage of some key absences as some of the top athletes were training for the Olympics or resting.
3. Norwegian Ski Speed: Coming out of their week off, the Norwegian men continued the improvements in speed we’ve been seeing since the return from the holidays. This week the JT Bø joined the party in a big way. Here’s how the top Norwegians ranked in speed this week. I’m limiting this to the top contenders for medals in Beijing JT Bø, Tarjei Bø, Laegreid, and Christiansen:
|Biathlete||20km Individual||15km Mass Start||Relay Leg Rank|
|Strula Holm Laegreid||4th||5th||2nd|
|Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen||6th||13th||2nd|
Can’t get much faster than that. You can argue about their strategy to sacrifice the early part of the season (or the rumbles of overtraining in the off season) but its clear that regardless they are peaking at the right time. In general you see your best results about 2-4 weeks after your heavy training period. If that’s the case then the Norwegian men still have more potential speed. I know that the Beijing course will challenge all equally but I really wish this were on a more “fair” course so we could really see what they are capable of. Regardless though its clear that the Norwegians are primed to win medals…potentially lots of medals.
4. Campbell Wright – We mentioned Campbell Wright last week but we get to talk about him again this week after he finished 15 in the Individual!! This is obviously another personal best besting his 25th place from last week. The young man from New Zealand is having one heck of a first season on the World Cup. He’s 19 which is super young no matter where you’re from. But he’s basically having to pave his own road. He doesn’t get to come up with the support of a team that young biathletes in Norway or Sweden or Germany would. He’s qualified for Beijing which will be a good experience. I think we need to start taking seriously that in the next 4-5 years he could start doing things that not many from his part of the world have ever done before.
5. Amanda Lightfoot – Amanda Lightfoot has the responsibility to carry the load for British Biathlon. This week she absolutely did them proud. She set a career best finishing 20th in the women’s Individual. Her previous best finish was 31st in the Individual from Ostersund in 2017. Shooting 95% was her best shooting since that previous best finish. It’s a shame we won’t see her in China for the Olympics.
1. Clare Egan – Already mentioned above but should be noted again that her 4th place in the Individual was Egan’s 2nd best finish of all time behind only a Mass Start in Oslo in 2019.
2. Mona Brorsson – After 157 total solo races Mona Brorsson finally got her first podium in the Individual race. She’s 31 but she’s actually having a career year. Right now she is 13th in the overall standings which would be her best finish ever. She’s ranked 20th in ski speed and that is also her best ever ranking. Pretty great year going!
3. Justine Braisaz-Bouchet – Known for her outstanding speed but not so much her shooting, Braisaz-Bouchet scored her 3rd career win, and first since 2019, with a terrific shooting performance going 19/20. What’s amazing is her 3 career wins, 2 of the are individual races which highly prize good shooting. I’ll be honest I wouldn’t have predicted that!
4. Vanessa Voigt – Voigt is having a very good first full season on the World Cup. At age 24 she’s not as young as some of the young stars we’ve seen but she’s has all the makings of being a challenger in the next few seasons and a potential heir as the next good German woman. In the Mass Start she grabbed 7th with a 20/20 shooting and was just 35 seconds back. She doesn’t have the ski speed yet but if she’s able to develop that 7th place won’t be all that unusual.
5. Anna Maka – Anna Maka has 21 total solo races, all of which are Sprints and Individual races as she doesn’t have a long history of great finishes. However this weekend she put together a terrific race, going 19/20 and finishing 12th. Her previous best finish was 26th, also in an Individual race…and also in Antholtz. That race was just last season. Something to remember for the future!
6. Alina Stremous – We’ve mentioned Alina Stremous a couple of times in recent weeks but to remind you she is a 26 year old Moldovan in her first full season on the World Cup. She has set two bests in recent weeks and set another one this weekend. In the Individual race she was 17/20 but she had the 14th fastest ski speed. That was by far her best ski rank of any race in her career. Impressive to do it in such a brutal race. What’s very cool is she got stronger vs. the field as the race went on. Her course time rankings per lap: 18, 20, 19, 15, 11.
7. Gabriele Lescinskaite – The Individual race was a hot spot for career bests this weekend. There are several reasons for that but lets just celebrate all of the great races! Lescinskaite finished 19th, her first top 20 finish, well above her prior career best of 39th from the Kontiolahti 2015 World Championships, also in an Individual race.
8. Paul Schommer – Mentioned above that Paul Schommer scored a career best this weekend with his 9th place finish in the Individual. His prior career best was 22nd which he accomplished twice. The 2nd of those to 22nd place finishes was in the Mass Start this weekend which was his first career Mass Start on the World Cup. Great weekend for Schommer!
9. Niklas Hartweg – The young Swiss biathlete Niklas Hartweg had his 2 best career finishes this weekend. In the Individual he grabbed 17th. He followed that up with 23rd in the Mass Start, which like Schommer was also his first Mass Start. Just 21 years old hopefully he can use this as a springboard to launch his career forward!
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