Every season when the IBU World Cup visits Ruhpolding it feels like one of the stops. The German fans are always amazing, loud and supportive. Being in Bavaria just feels like somewhere biathlon should be competed. Unfortunately this year the weather completely refused to cooperate. This was, visually at least, one of the least appealing World Cup weekends in quite some time.
The entire weekend the temperature was above freezing, there was frequently rain, which was quite heavy sometimes. Throughout the weekend what are normally vistas of gorgeous German mountains and forest were instead brown rocks, grass and mud, and with hard packed snow trails winding through plain trees. The fans were still loud and passionate. It was just a little sad to watch on tv.
You know who else didn’t disappoint? The biathletes. Every single one of them brought it every race. There was a lot of slipping and sliding. I counted many different athletes including Elisa Gasparin and Lisa Hauser and several I couldn’t definitively identify slipping and sliding in the wet conditions. But every race the athletes were out there competing and giving 100% regardless. We were rewarded with some very fun and entertaining events this weekend! So let’s review the weekend in the only way we know how…
Best Women’s Athlete: Lisa Vittozzi – Lisa Vittozzi came into the weekend off of a little stumble in Pokljuka. For her one solo race in Slovenia she finished 65th in the Sprint. This included 4 misses in the prone shooting and 2 more standing. The whispers weren’t even that quiet, that maybe Vittozzi’s early season form had all been a mirage, and the shaky shooting Vittozzi we had gotten used to the last few years was making a comeback. This weekend emphatically put an end to that.
Starting out with the Individual event on Thursday, Lisa Vittozzi was absolutely splendid. She started out the race decently with the 13th best time on lap 1. It was solid. No clear nerves. She didn’t come out flying but didn’t seem to overcorrect. It was confident. She slid in for her first shooting and I can speak for myself, and likely her coaches as well, held our breath. 5/5 prone. She took 30.3 seconds which was about middle of the pack but she got all 5 down.
It was like the weight came off her shoulders. Lap 2 she was 5th fastest and on par with Julia Simon and the Öbergs. Coming in for shooting 2 and she was 5/5 again. This time she took just 23 seconds which was the 16th fastest shooting for the first standing shooting.
The rest of the Individual was more of the same. She finished with the 3rd fastest course time on the day. Oh yeah and she never missed a shot going 20/20. Coming back from a horrific shooting performance in Pokljuka that was incredible to see. Four years after her last victory Lisa Vittozzi climbed back to the top of the podium. She was so emotional in her post race interview. It was just an amazing moment to see. At times it felt like it would never ever happen again. I loved it.
However Vittozzi was intent to prove this was a one hit wonder. In the relay she had 2 misses but no loops. She also had the fastest loop for the 2nd leg. Then in the Mass Start she once again took herself right to the head of the race. Along with Julia Simon and Anais Chevalier-Bouchet and stayed in the front of the pack the entire race. 19/20 with a single miss in standing shooting (that means she was 25/25 prone this weekend!) to go with the 3rd ranked course time put Vittozzi in a final group vying for another win. At the end Simon proved stronger down the stretch, but a 2nd place finish was nothing for Vittozzi to be upset with. What an incredible weekend!
Best Men’s Athlete: JT Bø/Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen – Okay so truthfully JT Bø was the man of the week. He won the Individual by 10 seconds even with an extra miss over Christiansen. He had the fastest course time by 1:14. Easy dominance. In the relay he easily skied away from Roman Rees to give Norway the win. He was so easily holding the lead that he admitted later he had no fear of a penalty loop on the standing shoot because he knew that even with a loop he had no problem winning. Finally in what was a hectic Mass Start, he pulled away late for yet another win. Basically, JT Bø was JT Bø, repeating his ridiculous performances from the entire season.
I wanted to take a moment to note what a great weekend Vetle Sjåstad Christiansen had. He showed in Annecy that he had been underperforming by a little in the first weekends of the season. The last two weekends though he’s getting back to his form of last season. This weekend was his best yet.
If it weren’t for JT Bø Christiansen would be celebrating two victories in Ruhpolding. Unfortunately JT Bø does indeed exist and Christiansen will have to settle for two 2nd place finishes. They were really good performances though!
The most important factor is his shooting is on the mend. This season the biggest thing holding him back has been standing shooting that plummeted from 87.7% last season to 78% this year. In the Individual race he went 19/20 and followed that with 18/20 in the Mass Start. That included a combined 18/20 standing. No, not perfect but 90% is a far cry from 78%. His skiing has continued to be top 5 level with a 3rd best course time in the Individual and 4th best in the Mass Start.
We would be remiss to leave out his relay performance as well. The Norwegian team was in an unusual position after Lægreid took a very rare penalty loop on the 2nd shooting of leg 1. Tarjei Bø did a solid job bringing the team back to within range. However Christiansen was a true hunter. Ever time I looked up he seemed to be slowly sneaking up on the leaders. He started out at 50 seconds back. He cut that to 18 seconds entering the range for the prone shooting. He left the range 9 seconds back. By the standing shooting of leg 2 he was right on Guigonnat’s tails. He handed off to JT Bø, the best biathlete in the World, in a virtual tie with Germany and the rest is history. Another win for Norway.
Best Young Women’s Athlete: Lou Jeanmonnot – While fellow countrywoman Julia Simon is racing closer and closer to an Overall Crystal Globe, 24 year old Lou Jeanmonnot is giving the French fans reasons for hope for the future too. All season long she has been showing strong performances, but ever since her maiden top 10 in Annecy-le Grand Bornand she has become a fixture at the top of the race standings.
This weekend she took another major step and climbed on to the podium for the first time in her World Cup career. She came into the weekend with a career best finish of 6th from the magical December weekend in France. However, that was knocked off as soon as the racing started in Ruhpolding.
The Individual was just about the perfect race for Jeanmonnot. Going 20/20 in an Individual will certainly do wonders for your time. She’s becoming pretty well known as a good shooter. She has shot less than 85% just one time this season, and overall is hitting a very good 91% of her shots. Right now that is good enough for a tie for 11th in the World Cup! On Thursday in the Individual she was one of just six 20/20 shootings out of 95 finishers. She paired that with the ninth best course time on the day and ended up climbin onto the podium for the first time in her career beating out aforementioned Julia Simon for 2nd place!
While the Mass Start didn’t quite live up to these same high expectations, her performance in the relay was phenomenal. She led off for a French team that had definite ambitions to go for the win. While leg 1 wasn’t stacked with the big names later in the race, it is still important to get off to a solid start and Jeanmonnot did just that. Another perfect shooting performance including a standing shooting of just 21.5 seconds gave France the lead after leg 1. And that 5/5 standing needed to be that fast because four other women shot at less than 22 seconds, the most of any leg of the race! All in all it was a really good weekend for Jeanmonnot as she is growing into a future leader for France!
Best Young Men’s Athlete: Tommaso Giacomel – Two weeks in a row as the best young man in biathlon. The biggest compliment I can give to Giacomel is that it isn’t even a surprise to see him in the top 10 anymore. Earlier in the season I wrote about the different leaps an athlete can take and this is one of them, the leap from the occasional top 10 to being there so regularly it no longer stands out. That’s where we are with Giacomel. The leap from being a young man with potential to a young man realizing that potential as one of the top 10-15 biathletes in the world.
This weekend was yet another step along that journey. The Individual resulted in yet another 5th place finish for Giacomel. Some young athletes have the occasional surge finish at the top scattered with some lower finishes. Giacomel is just slowly but surely pushing his career best higher and higher. It feels like it is just a matter of time before he get onto the podium…maybe in Antholz on home snow?!?
The Individual race showed off all of his improvements this season. He shot 19/20 including a perfect prone shooting. Throughout his career shooting has been his achille’s heel and particularly prone shooting. He’s improved this season with prone shooting up from 73.6% to 84%. This is the first time he has had better prone shooting than standing shooting in his World Cup career. Obviously we would like that to keep going but this is a start. He also ranked 8th in course time, the 3rd top 10 ranking of his career, all of which are this season. His ski ranks are up from the mid 40’s the last two seasons to now 11th overall this season.
The Relay was another solid performance with Giacomel bringing in the 2nd best loop time for leg 4. Loop times on leg 4 are very difficult to analyze though as they can vary wildly dending on if the athlete had a competitive close to the last lap. If it is competitive obviously they will race harder to the end. But oftentimes JT Bø for example, has nobody within several hundred meters so he shuts it down early. (Even still Bø had the fastest loop by 14.6 seconds over Giacomel). The Mass Start was an interesting race if nothing else. He was in 8th position and on the periphery of competing for a top 5 finish. Unfortunately 3 misses doomed him to 20th. Don’t let that color the good results though, it was another great weekend in Ruhpolding!
Best Women’s Race: Mass Start – I’ll admit I’m biased when it comes to Mass Starts. Everybody starts at the same time and the first person to cross the finish line wins. Similar to a Pursuit race there are many moments in the race when tactics play a major role in the outcomes. This race was a perfect example of that.
For the most part it was a race where the leaders were in the lead the entire way. Vittozzi was in the lead group from beginning to end. Simon had an early miss and briefly dropped out but worked furiously on lap 2 and was back in the lead group after a perfect 2nd shooting. Similarly Anais Chevalier-Bouchet had a miss in the 2nd shooting but worked herself right back to the lead group as they came to the last lap.
There were several other women who joined the leaders from time to time but when it came to the end of the race, it was these three competitors, Vittozzi, Simon, and Chevalier-Bouchet vying for the win. As they entered the final shooting the splits were thus: Simon leading, Vittozzi +7 and Chevalier-Bouchet +17. They came out of the range all together but how they got there was very interesting and says A LOT about them as athletes.
Working backwards, Chevalier-Bouchet, who came onto the range with Vanessa Voigt, knew that with that deficit she needed to go clean and relatively quickly. She did just that shooting 5/5 in 22 seconds. Vittozzi came on just a few seconds behind Simon. Vittozzi clearly knew that she needed to go clean to win unless Simon had an absolutely atrocious shooting. Simon had been faster on the course all day so trying to win in a sprint probably wasn’t going to happen. Vittozzi was clearly aware of Simon’s miss on the 2nd shot. This was reflected by taking a full 8 seconds between shot 4 and 5 to make sure she got the target down. It worked, she was clean. However I mentioned Simon having a miss. She did indeed have a miss. In classic Julia Simon fashion she had come onto the range and went full gas with her shooting, unloading in 20.7 seconds. Due to her lead coming into the range and very fast shooting while Vittozzi focused on the last hit, Simon was able to get off the loop in a tie with Vittozzi and Chevalier-Bouchet.
This led to the 2nd set of tactical decisions, how do you win a three person last lap. Chevalier-Bouchet, who later admitted that she doesn’t like these sorts of tactical races, made the first decision and tried to pull away from Vittozzi and Simon earlier in the lap. It didn’t work as Vittozzi and Simon stubbornly hung on to her. After that expenditure she was pretty much resigned to 3rd. Coming down to a final battle between Simon and Vittozzi and Simon timed a push towards the end and Vittozzi didn’t have the top speed to stay with her resulting in the final results: Simon with the win, Vittozzi with a very happy 2nd place, and Anais Chevalier-Bouchet with her 2nd podium of the season.
Also of note in the Mass Start, Vanessa Voigt had a very good race going 18/20 and with 8th best course time. It was her best race since Kontiolahti and she is looking much more like we had hoped she would this season. Linn Persson was in 4th which was her 8th top 10 of the year. She needs just one more to match her career best in a season. Sweden also had Hanna Öberg in 6th in Magnusson in 8th. Emma Lunder pulled out another top 10 finishing 9th as well. All in all a fun race!
Best Men’s Race: Mass Start – I missed this race live. With the start of the Women’s Mass Start I tweeted about how I love the start of a Mass Start because it looks like a bunch of friends out for a ski. I forget who it was now but somebody quickly replied that JT Bø decided he didn’t want to ski with his friends in the men’s race. That was certainly true. This race was wild from the opening gun. I keep a notepad during each race and I went back afterward and wrote one word at the top: Chaotic. That about sums it up.
From the very beginning of the race the men were flying. Initially JT Bø pushed the pace, then Christiansen leapt up to lead. Bø seemed almost offended by this and he pushed right back into first place. Everybody strung out behind them in a jumble. Then they get to the range and so many of the favorites started right out with a miss: JT Bø, Lægreid, Christiansen, Hartweg, Giacomel all immediately went to the loop.
We could break down every shooting but I think the best summarization is that leaving the range after the 3rd shooting 5 guys were all in a group within 2 seconds. There were 13 within 30 seconds and 17 within 35 seconds. That’s with two laps and one shooting to go and basically half the field was still technically in range for a podium.
Lap 4 went about how you would expect it to. JT Bø just skied away from the group and gave himself a 9 second advantage going into the range. He had a miss shooting in a very rapid 18.7 seconds and left the range 6 seconds behind Christiansen. Somehow it was never in doubt. JT Bø skied up to and quickly past Christiansen and away for his 9th win of the season. Behind those two Lægreid and Tarjei Bø completed a top 4 sweep for Norway.
A little further back Jacquelin had a nice race and finished with a top 5 for the first time since Hochfilzen. Vytautus Strolia finished 6th which was his 3rd best finish ever. I will forever be a fan of Strolia as he seems like such a genuinely nice man including deftly handing off skis as he did in a Mass Start last year. Justus Strelow finished in 8th with a career best. Chaotic.
Crystal Globe Update: Well both races are pretty much wrapped up and we haven’t even reached the World Championships yet. Obviously illness or injury could still happen but lets hope that isn’t what decides the Overall Crystal Globe. Here’s where things are…
Women: This weekend Julia Simon took a massive step towards bringing home the first French Overall Crystal Globe for French women since Sandrine Bailly in the 2004-2005 season. First after Elvira closed the gap by 45 points in Pokljuka, Simon immediately took back 20 by beating Elvira by three places in the Individual. Then Elvira got sick and missed the Mass Start, which is a disaster for someone trying to chase down the leader. Then Simon made it even worse by winning the mass start for a maximum 90 points gained on Elvira. The difference now stands at 141 points. It isn’t completely over yet because Elvira could still go on a JT Bø like run. However, Elvira is going to have to go on a JT Bø style run because Simon shows no signs of slowing down. With just 9 races left Elvira needs to gain 16 points per race to win the globe. That’s a tough ask. Maybe next week we look at battles deeper down for positioning in the top 10 and maybe best career finishes.
Men: JT Bø won two more times. He’s up to 9 wins in 12 races. Of his non wins he has a 12th in the season opening Individual and two 3rd place finishes in Annecy, one of which happened in the infamous Fischer ski race. Now JT Bø is up 174 points over Lægreid. At this point Lægreid needs 20 points on Bø every single race. That’s just not going to happen unless something crazy happens. The really wild thing is that it’s another 282 points from Lægreid to Christiansen.
JT Bø is on another planet, but lets not lose sight of how incredible Lægreid has been this season. This probably deserves its own piece to celebrate SLH. Then Christiansen has 69 points on QFM. Very real chance of a Norwegian sweep of the top 3 spots here. Tarje Bø and Johanes Dale are currently 6th and 7th. Tarje Bø is just 43 points back of QFM so don’t rule out a Norwegian top 4 sweep. Goodness gracious. Maybe Ole Einar Bjorndalen is right and this really is the greatest assemblage of biathlon talent ever.