Biathlon Returns: It was the first weekend of competition back since the Olympics and the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There were several nice tributes to Ukraine scattered throughout the weekend including a video montage of Ukrainian athletes who were unable to participate this week, the Czech team using Ukrainian colored headbands, and the Norwegian women writing messages of support on their headbands. Besides that obvious cloud hanging over the races it was actually a very enjoyable weekend of racing. The weeks after the Olympics are always difficult to predict. You never know who is going to be crashing after their Olympic peak and who is going to be able to maintain form or even have a late season peak. This weekend was no exception as we saw many men and women rising up the standings for career best. As usual I’ve tried to highlight many of those below. And with that, lets get to it!
Best Overall Women’s Performance: Tiril Eckhoff – Was there any doubt? As a fan it is so great to see Eckhoff back in full form. I’m sure as a competitor its nice to see…once. I’m sure if she maintains this form the next two weeks and comes back next season at full force the rest of the women in the field won’t love to see that! But after a season dominated by Marte Røiseland it appears that Tiril Eckhoff is ready to have her moment in the sun at the tail end of the season here. She finished in 2nd place in the Sprint competition and then completed the comeback by getting back to the top step on the podium in the Pursuit race. Impressively she did it on the back of her shooting going 27/30 in the two races. It wasn’t the best of anybody on the weekend, but as is the case with somebody like Eckhoff, she has enough speed that she doesn’t have to be the best shooter. In fact her speed was off from her peak that she experienced in China. Maybe she just peaked early or maybe she’s got a little left in the tank. The latter option should scare her competitors.
Best Overall Men’s Performance: Quinton Fillon Maillet – Quinton Fillon Maillet is having an absolutely brilliant and phenomenal season that we’re going to remember. He came away from the week in Kontiolahti with two more victories including his 6th straight Pursuit victory to wrap up the first discipline globe of his career. From what I could see 6 Pursuit victories in a single season matches Fourcade’s record but nobody has ever had 6 in a row. He’s been absolutely untouchable in Pursuit races this season but this week it was a little easier for him considering he won the Sprint race by 18 seconds over Filip Fjeld Andersen and had a 30 second cushion on the rest of the field. I had been concerned during the relay race that QFM’s form might be starting to falter a little after maintaining such a high level all season and especially at the Olympics. I no longer have concern. For this year at least, QFM is the champ.
Best Young Women’s Performance: Elvira Öberg+ Vanessa Voigt – I had to split the young women’s performance this week. Elvira did have the best combined finishes for the weekend and was even better when you include the relay race. That’s not debatable. She’s so good that finishing 7th in the Sprit and 9th in the Pursuit is considered a somewhat average weekend for her. While not as fast relative to the field as she was in the first weeks of the season she is still very fast, including the 2nd fastest Sprint time. This weekend what held her back was the shooting as she went 80% in both races. Just 1-2 of extra hits in the Pursuit and she’s potentially top 5 again. She’s definitely one of the leaders on the World Cup now.
I also wanted to highlight Vanessa Voigt though because while certainly not as prolific as Elvira Öberg, she too has had a very good rise in stature this season. She had just three total starts on the World Cup before this season after two full years on the IBU Cup. Over the course of the year she steadily risen up the rankings. Over the last three weeks including the Olympics she has three top 10’s including a 6th place in the Sprint this weekend. She just missed another finishing 11th in the Pursuit. She’s a terrific shooter to the point that anything less than 90% on the range is considered a surprise. And she still has room to grow with her ski speed. This weekend for example she ranked 13th and 32nd in course time. If she can just get a touch faster she can start to break into the top 5. Imagine her like Lisa Hauser. Doesn’t need to be blazing fast, just fast enough. Maybe Voigt and Elvira Öberg should train together this off season? Help each other out with their weaknesses?
Best Young Men’s Performance: Filip Fjord Andersen and Sivert Bakken – The Norwegian team is almost unfair. They are missing the dominant Bø Brothers and still manage to scoop up top 10 finishes by the handful. This week the young rookies FF Andersen and Sivert Bakken managed two top 10’s each including the best finishes of their respective careers in the Sprint with Andersen getting 2nd and Bakken 4th. I find them interesting because in my head I link them together. They both ascended to the World Cup this season and have shown successes at different times. However they do succeed in slightly different ways. Andersen is the modestly better shooter while Bakken is a little faster. It will be really fun, for me at least, to watch them develop. Andersen is 22 and Bakken is 23. Combine them with the 24 year old Sturla Laegreid and the Norwegian men are absolutely stacked with young talent.
Best Women’s Race: Sprint – This category is usually biased towards Pursuits, Relays, and Mass Starts because visually they can be so appealing. At their best you get the dramatic moments on the range and the quiet tactical battles fought out on the course. This week though, the best women’s race in my opinion was the Sprint. There was a wild stretch where it felt like every woman coming around was in the same range and may have a chance to win the race. In the end we finished with four women within 7 seconds, nine women within 30 seconds, and eighteen women within 1 minute. The Finn Mari Eder managed to get her 3rd top 10 of the season in front of home fans. And Stina Nilsson got the first of what will likely be several podium finishes in her career. That was fun!
Best Men’s Race: 4×7.5km Relay – This race was everything you want out of a relay. It felt unbelievably tight from the start through the finish. Slowly but surely the field was whittled down until the last and strongest teams remained. At the first exchange there were 10 teams within 30 seconds. At the second exchange 9 teams remained within 45 seconds including the home town Finns after a phenomenal leg by Tero Seppala and a very surprising Lithuanian team. At that point the eventual 1-2 Norwegian and Swedish teams were 30 seconds behind. At the third exchange the race had been narrowed down to four but was closer than ever with Norway, Sweden, France, and Germany all within 2 seconds.
It was a wild closing leg but Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen once again proved to be the strongest anchor. He’s absolutely earned that role as he seems to show no nerves when the relay is on the line. Both in China and in Kontiolahti he stared down Quinton Fillon Maillet and came away victorious. You have to feel a little bit for the German team again coming in with a painful 4th place. However you also have to be happy for the Austrian team that finished 5th and the Swiss squad in 6th. It was the Austrian team’s best finish in 2 seasons and for Switzerland their best finish since 2014-2015 season in Ruhpolding!
The Stina Nilsson Debate: So what do we do with Stina Nilsson? She has been the subject of so much fascination over the last seasons as she made the transition from cross country skiing to biathlon. She wasn’t just a cross country skier though, she was a five time Olympic medalist and two of those medals were in solo events. When Denise Herrmann made the transition over to biathlon she was good but she wasn’t that good. If Stina Nilsson could just learn to shoot she could be good…very good. Well this weekend shows that it looks like she figuring out the rifle but she still has a ways to go.
In the Sprint race we saw the high potential of Nilsson. She shot 9/10 and was fast. In fact she was the absolute fastest on the course for the time in her career. The only women she finished behind were Tiril Eckhoff who finished 2nd. In an interesting quirk of fate the woman who won the race of Nilsson’s first podium finish was the aforementioned Denise Herrmann.
In the Pursuit race we saw how much growth Nilsson still has to do. She was 14/20 and tumbled from a starting position of 3rd down to 20th. She was still fast, 10th fastest even with 6 penalty loops. She’s got a ways to go but the potential is there. And we’ll continue to see flashes of it. She is still in the prime of her career. My best is we see her win multiple times before her career is over. We know she’s got the mentality for it with those Olympic medals.
We talked earlier about the potential of the young Norwegian men, but think about the Swedish women. They have both Öbergs, Linn Person, and Nilsson all under the age of 28. Not bad considering the state of the Swedish women’s program just a few years ago.
Great Comebacks: This weekend we saw many great comebacks in world of biathlon
a) Tiril Eckhoff – Don’t need to spend much time here but just remember how lost she looked for weeks at a time earlier this season.
b) Lukas Hofer – He also looked lost earlier this season. He felt so off that he skipped the racing in Oberhof to continue his training. You could see his form coming back in China. He looked good in the Sprint race going 9/10 and finishing 8th. He really turned it on when in the Pursuit race. A terrific 19/20 and he was 5th fastest on the day. Hopefully he has a few more good races left!
c) Emilien Jacquelin – Finally looking like himself again! He was unbelievably good the first few weeks of the season. It was terrific to see him back in form this weekend. He was fastest in the Sprint and 7th fastest in the Pursuit. Those were his best races since Annecy. He’s a fun athlete. Hopefully he finishes strong and gets back onto the podium soon!
d) Ingrid Tandrevold – The biggest comeback was Tandrevold. All she had to do was to race this weekend and it was a win. But the grit that she showed in the closing leg of the relay was really terrific to see. The rest of the weekend wasn’t as good but we enjoyed seeing her back out there.
1&2.Filip Fjord Andersen + Sivert Bakken – Already covered these two above but I don’t want to forget about them! Both had career best finishes including a second career podium for Andersen and a near miss by Bakken. They also importantly both had good follow up races in the Pursuit finishing 7th for Bakken and 8th for Andersen. For Bakken this is now 3 straight top 10’s and for Andersen he now has 2 podium finishes this season.
3.Dunja Zdouc – Dunja Zdouc has been racing on the World Cup level since 2014-2015 and this weekend she tied her career best with a 10th place finish in the Pursuit race. Her career best season was undoubtedly last year with 6 of her 10 best finishes including her previous career best. This season has been a bit of a step back from that so it was great to see her jump up and take advantage. She started in the 19th position after the Sprint and rode her 19/20 shooting to get back to the top 10.
4. Jessica Jislova – I highlighted Jislova fairly extensively early in the season as she started out the year with several of her career best finishes. By the midway point of the season she was having a solid jump in form and on her way to a career best season. After peaking in Annecy her results tailed off just a touch. However she was back up again this week! She was 20th in the Sprint and then went 20/20 in the Pursuit to rise all the way up to 7th! She also had her best skiing since the early part of the season as well. This was her 2nd career top 10 and 2nd best finish of her career! Her total shooting percentage this season is 91.8% which is up from 75.3% last season. Her prior career high was 85% in the 2017-2018 season. Her ski ranking is also up this season to 56th. She’s currently ranked 18th overall, and if she can improve her ski speed in the same way she’s improved her shooting, maybe not even as much, she can get to the top 10. Maybe not likely at this stage of her career but she’s shown the ability to put in the work and make the improvements!
5. Karoline Knotten – Karoline Knotten is 27 years old and on a deep Norwegian team including two of the best biathletes over the last few seasons. Sometimes it is hard to stand out on a team like that. While these aren’t the greatest results of anybody on the team Knotten this weekend had an 11th place in the Sprint and 5th place in the Pursuit. That ties her 2nd best and 4th best finishes of all time. It hasn’t necessarily been the season that she may have been hoping for but she now has 3 of her 5 best career finishes this year.
6. Peppe Femling – At age 29 Peppe Femling tied his career best finish with a 9th place in the Sprint! It was part of an all around great weekend for the Swedish team. It tied his 9th place finish from the Individual in Canmore in 2019. His best previous finish this season was 19th in the Ruhpolding Pursuit.
7. Sebastian Stalder – Sebastian Stalder continues his recent run of success with his two best career finishes. He had a low period earlier this season when he didn’t finish higher than 101st in Annecy, Oberhof, or Ruhpolding. Since then he’s been on the upswing. This weekend he continued that going 15th in the Sprint and 18th in the Pursuit. He’s had a dramatic improvement in his shooting over that period including 29/30 this weekend. At the same time his ski ranking is steadily progressing upward as well. During that low period he was ranking in the 80-90’s. This past weekend his ski ranks were 38th and 42nd. He’s just 24 years old with only 19 solo races on the World Cup circuit. He’s got great potential to carry the flag for Swiss biathlon for the next several years!
8. Jakub Štvrtecký – The 23 year old Czech athlete (How about the Czech Republic getting 2 on this list!) had his 3rd best ever finish this weekend. His 23rd place in the Sprint finish was his best of the season. His 13th ranked course time in the Sprint was, not coincidentally, his best of the season. He only went 7/10 shooting. Imagine how good it could have been? This season his shooting is mediocre at best. He’s at 72.3% for the season and hasn’t shot above 80% since Östersund. Definitely a major area he can improve. Just 1-2 more hits per season and he’s going to really rise up the rankings!