Kontiolahti 2022 Week in Review Pt. 1

And just like that biathlon is back! Kontiolahti didn’t disappoint either as a venue or with the racing. I have to admit I was a little worried with some of the dry pictures we have seen recently but Kontiolahti was snowy and certainly looked cold! Easy for me to say on my couch with a hot cup of coffee but honestly it just makes it look like biathlon season. As I mentioned above we had some pretty good races too. Without further ado lets go ahead and jump right in with part one of our weekly recap!

Men’s Athlete of the Week: JT Bø The King is back! Yes it’s only week 1 and we should probably be a little more reserved with our analysis, but that’s not as much fun. JT Bø looked better than he has in at least two seasons. Admittedly he didn’t have a great Individual race to start. The relay race he got the handoff and the Norwegians and Germans were neck and neck. He had just one miss and absolutely crushed the first two laps and cruised to a 43 second win for Norway. Honestly, it looked easy.

The Sprint and Pursuit races were classic JT Bø. He won the sprint with 9/10 shooting and was the fastest on the course by a very solid 20 seconds over Samuelsson. Then he goes into the Pursuit and never opened the door for anybody to challenge him until the last shooting. By that point though he had accumulated enough of a lead, and everybody enough misses, that it didn’t even matter. Out of 8 laps for the Sprint and the Pursuit he was the fastest man on 5 of them. Some of those laps he was 8-10 seconds on his closest competitors. When he does that and shoots well enough like 9/10 in the Sprint or in this case 17/20 in the Pursuit he’s going to win.

I said it in the podcast and I’ll say it here again, while there is a long long long way to go this season the rest of the men cannot be happy to see JT Bø showing this form right now.

Women’s Athlete of the Week: Lisa Vittozzi – Was there anybody else that I could pick? Lisa Vittozzi was not only the feel good athlete of the week but she was literally the best athlete the week. She enters Hochfilzen wearing the Yellow Jersey. Lisa Vittozzi wearing the Yellow Jersey!!! Third in the Individual, second in the Sprint, and 4th in the Pursuit. That’s a phenomenal start. I think even the most optimistic Italian fan would have been shocked if you told them Vittozzi was going to do that.

Okay, here’s what everybody is asking…how did she do on the prone shooting? Pretty darn good. She went 23/25 prone and 47/50 overall. That’s not just relatively good, that’s very good. She paired that with 6th, 5th, and 18th course time ranks. If you look at her time back per km from the fastest woman (Elvira) she actually ranks 6th overall in ski speed right now. Last year she was in the 25-30th range. So this wasn’t just a terrific shooting weekend but it was ski form that we haven’t seen from her since her 2nd overall finish in 2018-2019.

How wonderful was that weekend to watch? It may not last. She may have some struggles this year when the tension ramps up or as more attention gets focused on her. For right now though this is a win. Vittozzi looks like the top level biathlete we’ve all known that she is. This is wonderful.

Best Young Mens Athlete: Niklas Hartweg – Just like with Vittozzi as best overall woman, picking the man wearing the Blue Jersey as this week’s “Best Young Men’s Athlete” seems like cheating. Hartweg truly deserves it though. He started off the weekend with an absolutely tremendous 2nd place finish in the Individual race. Prior to the year I wrote this about Hartweg in the Switzerland Team Preview:

“Hartweg is a potential future star for Switzerland. He’s shown flashes including a 17th place finish last season. If he can find that 90% shooting accuracy again he doesn’t need to be the fastest man in the world. His model is going to be Simon Eder. That’s a high bar but honestly he’s got the skills to reach it. Shoot clean, shoot fast, and do enough on the skis. Eder used that to collect a handful of wins and finish as high as 5th overall twice. If we look back in 20 years and Hartweg was able to do that all involved would be pretty dang happy.”

That’s exactly what he did in the Individual race. He was a perfect 20/20 and had the 21st best course time. If that’s not a perfect peak Simon Eder impersonation then I don’t know where we’ll ever see it. Is Hartweg Simon Eder? Well let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. However, this was what I had in mind when I wrote that.

It wasn’t just a one race surprise for Hartweg though as he backed it up with really solid racing in the Sprint and the Pursuit. He finished 16th in the Sprint and 17th in the Pursuit. The Pursuit had the makings of another top 10 for him but 3 late misses dropped him from 7th back down. Prior to this season 17th was his career high. Three straight races all at or better than his career high is a great weekend. When one of those is 2nd place and your first career podium that’s a breakout weekend. Let’s keep on eye on Hartweg this season.

Best Young Womens Athlete: Elvira Öberg – Prior this season the general thought amongst most biathlon fans was that Elvira Öberg was going to come into this season and just blow away the competition. That was not necessarily an unfair thought. Last year she was 2nd overall and Marte Olsbu Roeiseland, last year’s overall champion, is out for at least the first trimester. This seemed to be inviting Elvira to claim the throne. While that very well may be the outcome we end up at at least the first weekend she was not the overwhelming champ that might have been expected.

Screenshot from Annecy races in 2021

I say all of this because this was far from a disappointing weekend. First of all, Elvira is still fast. Nobody is surprised that she was the fastest woman every single race. The degree to which she was the fastest was a little eye opening. In the Individual she was 12 seconds faster than her sister Hanna Öberg who won the race. In the Sprint, over a much much shorter course she was a wild 23.9 seconds faster than Mari Eder who was 2nd fastest that day. Finally, in the Pursuit she was 9 seconds faster than Hanna Öberg who was again second fastest.

Over the course of an entire weekend only in one race was anybody with 10 seconds of her. I can’t get over being fastest in a sprint race by 23.9 seconds over just 7.5km. Basically just a little bit less than a penalty loop. For perspective There were 11 woman between in the next 24 seconds back from Elvira. That’s wild. We all know that if Elvira shoots 90% or better she’s almost assured of a win. This weekend she had 3 misses in the Individual and 3 misses in the Sprint. Maybe she just needed a couple of races to get settled and

Men’s Race of the Week: Men’s Relay – Okay sure this race seemed to have a predestined ending. The Norwegian men were the heavy favorites and the Norwegian men won by 43 seconds. Then we had the Germans and the French not really all that close too each other. Two more strong teams on the podium. How can anybody argue that this was the best race? Well first off the Germans and the French at least gave the Norwegians a race for awhile. Norway didn’t get any separation from the Germans until JT Bø took the course. Bø ran away from Doll in the first lap and that was that. Bø was able to just cruise down the last lap and save up energy for the Sprint/Pursuit back to back.

The reason I chose this was because of what happened later. After the top three the rest o the top 10:
4) Austria
5) Czech Republic
6) Finland
7) Slovenia
8) Lithuania
9) Ukraine
10) Sweden

That is a really awesome top 10. I love the diversity. Preseason we all loved the Czech Republic women’s team but the men coming out with a top 5 off the bat is amazing. Really though the eye catcher is Lithuania. It was, as far as I can tell, the best relay race for Lithuania ever. Of course we all know Vytautus Strolia by now, but Tomas Kaukenas, Karol Dombrovky, and Maksim Fomin all made this happen. Terrific racing by Team Lithuania and congratulations to them. I loved this top 10.

Women’s Race of the Week: Pursuit – I said it on Twitter today and I’ll say it again. If I wanted to explain to somebody what I love about biathlon, or introduce a friend to biathlon, this is the type of race I would like them to see. It was a tight battle from start to finish. As pointed out by Kristian Wulff on Twitter this week the race was a virtual mass start with 35 women starting within 1:11 of each other. Lisa Theresa Hauser started with a 17 second advantage that was wiped away after a miss on the first shooting.

After that first miss by Hauser there was a group of women at the start who alternated going head to head with each other. Pictured above you had the core group of Simon, Wierer, Lunder, Vittozzi, and Hauser. Elvira was in and out of that mix as well.

I can’t quite put it in to words but it was really remarkable to watch. Every shooting felt tense because every single one of those women felt like they were on their game. Those were some of the major “names” of the sport. And then riding along in the middle of this was major underdog Emma Lunder going toe to toe with these women all the way to the end.

In the end I don’t think anybody is surprised Julia Simon came away on top. She is absolutely tough as nails. She loves going head to head with anybody. Four of her five career wins come in Pursuits and Mass Starts. Wierer in second not a surprise to anybody as well. Elvira showed terrific grit to battle back from a tough shooting weekend to go 19/20. Then Vittozzi in 4th to close out her amazing weekend and Emma Lunder with a second top 5 finish after not having any prior to the weekend. This was a really really fun race.

Yellow Jersey Race Check In:

Every week this season we’ll do a quick look at the Yellow Jersey competition. Around the end of the first trimester I’ll start doing breakdowns about who has the best chance to come away with the overall Crystal Globe. For now it’s just a chance to look at who did well this weekend.

Women’s Race Wide Open?

As I mentioned above pretty much everybody expected Elvira Öberg to come into the season and stomp on all comers. Part of this was Roeiseland not racing to start the year. Part of this is expected continued development. And part of this is because Elvira has come into the season on fire the last two years. While the ski form was certainly scary for her competitors the shooting wasn’t there to turn it into more than one top finish. While I would still Elvira is the favorite, she is no longer the heavy favorite. The rest of the field looks very strong.

After week 1 it’s hard to ignore Vittozzi, the current Yellow Jersey wearer, as one of Elvira’s top competitors. She showed better ski form than she has had since her last run at an overall Globe and she’s shooting well. That’s dangerous. She’s shown the ability to get there and could absolutely do it again.

Hanna Öberg also showed in the Individual why she is a legitimate threat. She can ski almost as well as Elvira and has potential to be a better shooter. We’ll see if she can follow through on that all season. Similarly Julia Simon. If this weekend was an indication of improved shooting she cannot be forgotten.

After that group of 4 I would loosely throw in Hauser, Tandrevold, Wierer, Persson, and Voigt in roughly that order. Although I could be persuaded to bump Wierer up I think at this age Hauser and Tandrevold have more good races in them. I wouldn’t say this group are quite ready to join the top 4 but they are not out of it.

JT Bø/Lægreid 2020-2021 redux?

It’s been one week and we already have JT Bø and Lægreid at the top of the standings. Is this the 2020/2021 season all over again? That one remember went all the way down to the final wild race in Ostersund where JT Bø retained his crown as overall champ. While we now the French traditionally start slow you don’t want to dig yourself too big of a hole. And while I didn’t mention him much today, I’ll have more to say about Lægreid tomorrow. Those two look able to push each other all season long.

After those two solid favorites Sebastian Samuelsson almost seems to be sneaking along in the shadows. He and Roman Rees are the only two that had top 5’s in every race in Kontiolahti and yet somehow Samuelsson seems forgotten. We don’t expect Rees to continue to race quite this well but Samuelsson has the pedigree for it. Also he didn’t look as fast as we know he could be so maybe more improvement to come from him this weekend. Regardless he’s in a great position to push for the overall and nobody is really looking at him.

After those 3 you have to consider the French. As mentioned above they traditionally start slow and right now Jacquelin in 5th leads les Bleus in the overall rankings. Quinton Fillon Maillet had an underwhelming weekend and currently sits in 13th just 1 point ahead of Vytautus Strolia. No offense to Strolia but that’s just not the company we expected QFM to be keeping. I still expect him to have a great weekend or two coming up and vault into the top 5. Jacquelin though, like Samuelsson, did have a solid weekend in Kontiolahti and is under the radar. After a 28th in Individual, not his strong suit, he went 5th and 3rd in Sprint and Pursuit. He looked like the “good” Jacquelin and it’s an encouraging start.

Beyond those 5 I have a hard time envisioning other competitors. However to keep our look broad I would include Martin Ponsiluoma and Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen. I don’t know if I’m ready to put Roman Rees or David Zobel or any of the German men on the list yet though. I just need to see more before I am ready.

Part two coming soon…

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