Breakthrough Men of the 2022-2023

One of my favorite parts of a biathlon season is watching the improvements that occur. Of course there is the fun in watching the races and seeing who wins and who loses. There is also something really exciting about an athlete reaching their potential or finding a level that you didn’t know was even possible. So this pieces is dedicated to those athletes who achieved that this season!

Breakthroughs come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes a breakthrough is an athlete rising from being very good to a great of the sport. Sometimes it is an athlete coming up from occasional top 10 to consistent top 10 contender. And sometimes you have the athletes who come out of the great middle of the pack to make a name for themselves as a top 25 biathlete. This year we were so lucky that we actually saw a little of all of this!

Before we start a few notes:

  • We’re trying to focus primarily on young athletes here usually 25 or younger. Not that older athletes aren’t eligible to “breakthrough.” It’s just usually that by the time they are further into their careers it’s more incremental improvement rather than breakthrough.
  • I have a separate piece on Rookies coming up later so many of them are not listed here. We are defining rookies as having raced at least 1/3 of a World Cup season prior to the current season.
  • There are some subtle differences between breakthrough and just improvement. I can’t put it into words though. Basically you know if when you see it. Think about it this way: Endre Strømsheim had a nice improvement, *spoiler alert* Tommaso Giacomel had a breakthrough.

Niklas Hartweg

Overall Rank11
Career Best Rank74
Total Career Races41
Key StatisticOverall Shooting Rank: 2nd

Even without seeing his picture at the top of the article you had to know there was no way I was going to leave Hartweg off of this list. He absolutely rocketed up the rankings from last year to this year. There couldn’t possibly be a better example of a breakthrough. He went from 74th and just two top 30’s to 11th overall, 8 top 10’s, and the u25 Globe. Hartweg went from a tantalizing talent for a nation not accustomed to top tier biathlon talent to a full blown star. Maybe that is hyperbole but the men’s Blue Bib winner, the former #1 overall Junior from 2019-2020, really started to live up to his potential

The only way to go from 74th in the overall to 11th is by improving across the board. In my season preview I noted that he was already a good shooter so what he needed to do to start to contend on the World Cup was find some ski speed. He certainly did that. He went from about 1% slower than the average biathlete to about 1.6% faster than average. Massive improvement there.

However, the reason he went to the top was because he took his strength and made it a super power. Hartweg has always been a good shooter. On the Juniors level he was shooting in the 90% range. He just was never able to quite get there in his short time on the World Cup. Well he got there now. This past season he shot a fairly ridiculous 95.6% prone, 91.1% standing, and 93.3% overall. That was good enough for 2nd best of the entire World Cup just 0.18% behind Sturla Holm Laegreid.

At this point it is fair to say that the sky is the limit. It doesn’t take a genius to know that you can compete for the Overall title with shooting like that. We’ve already seen Laegreid do just that. The question is how fast does he need to be to get there? Well he’s going to need to about double the improvements he’s already made on the skis. Can he do it? Sure, why not? He’s just 23 years old and the former Juniors #1 and has a history of being one of the fastest skiers when he was a Junior. The sky is the limit!

Tommaso Giacomel

Overall Rank12
Career Best Rank36
Total Career Races58
Key StatisticTotal Skiing Rank: 14th

Hartweg isn’t the only one for whom the sky is the limit. This season Tommaso Giacomel made his own breakthrough into the upper tier of men’s biathlon. Giacomel has taken a slightly different journey than Hartweg. At just 22 years old Giacomel is already on his third full season on the World Cup after just two partial Juniors seasons and a couple of races on the IBU Cup. It’s been a steady and dramatic rise for Giacomel over the last three seasons. One top 30 in 2020-2021, his first top 10 in 2021-2022, and then 7 top 10’s and 12th Overall last season. With Hartweg and Giacomel just 23 and 22 respectively we are set up for years of battles, some of which may end up with one of them holding the Overall Globe.

The fascinating thing about their battles is that they seem to have opposite strengths. While Hartweg is one of the premier shooters in men’s biathlon, Giacomel relies more on his speed. This season it was that strength that propelled him to his peak performances. His ski speed improved dramatically the last season. In 20-21 and 21-22 he ranked 44th and 42nd overall in skiing. This past season that leapt all the way up to 14th overall. He improved from 1.1% faster than average to 3% faster than average. That puts him on the level now of Johannes Kuehn and Emilien Jacquelin. Quite nearly good enough to content for the Overall Globe already

For Giacomel to make the next leap to the top 5 of the Overall rankings he’s going to have to take a few lessons from Hartweg. Giacomel has been held back by average at best shooting. This season he had his greatest success on the range and still just barely got over 80% overall. He’ll need to find a way to get at least to the mid-upper 80’s to be able to compete. Unlike Hartweg, who we know has ski potential, we’ve never seen Giacomel anywhere close to there. However we have seen him improve 5% in total shooting in the last season. The will is there and he’s a very young athlete still. I am very hopeful that he’ll improve on the range just as Hartweg improves on the skis!

Sebastian Stalder

Overall Rank17
Career Best Rank40
Total Career Races47
Key StatisticTotal Shooting Percentage: 91.3%

How awesome is it to have two Swiss men on this list? It really is incredible. A season ago at this time we were mourning the retirement of Benjamin Weger from the Swiss team and wondering where they would go next? Now they have two of the top young talents for the men. Truly a remarkable turn around.

Coming into the season Hartweg was the more tantalizing talent but Stalder had experienced a little more success on the World Cup stage. Last season he started to have a little success with two top 20’s and seven top 30’s. Just like Hartweg though, this season was a major breakthrough. He ended up with seven top 10’s, just 1 less than Hartweg. This included a top 10 every weekend from Ruhpolding through Olso except for the Nove Mesto races.

Not surprisingly Stalder’s profile is very similar to Hartweg. He’s an awesome shooter and is gaining speed. While Hartweg ranked 2nd overall in shooting, Stalder was almost equally highly ranked, finishing the season with the 5th highest total shooting percentage. This season he set a new career best in shooting with a total shooting percentage of 91.3%. He also made the skiing improvements as well going from 76th overall in skiing to 36th.

The path is clear for Switzerland to put two men into the top 10 of the Overall. Just like Hartweg, Stalder needs to continue to shoot at a very high level while improving the skiing. Just like with Hartweg, Stalder’s goal has to be just get as fast as possible without sacrificing the shooting. Much easier said than done! But we’re already seeing the improvement happen. Stalder is still just 25 and a couple of years away from his peak performance levels. Let’s see how high he can go!

Justus Strelow

Overall Rank21
Career Best Rank67
Total Career Races29
Key StatisticTop 20’s: 15

Over the last few seasons Germany has lost major leaders with the retirements of fan favorites Arnd Peiffer and Eric Lesser. At times it looked like they were going to lose another one in Benedikt Doll but thankfully he will be coming back. As these beloved men have exited the squad it has opened up some opportunities for a few men who otherwise weren’t receiving these chances. One example of this: Justus Strelow.

Prior to this this season the 26 year old Strelow had just 5 total World Cup races. It isn’t like he wasn’t having success on the IBU Cup. Over the last two seasons he ended up finishing 6th and 5th in the overall. That was as a 24 and 25 year old. Normally you would think a young man like that would see more time on the World Cup. Instead while he was piling up 8 podiums and 18 top 10’s he was bypassed for the World Cup squad. You would think maybe it was because he wasn’t having success in his limited World Cup starts? Well he wasn’t getting in the top 10 but he was still in the teens and 20’s.

That changed this season. Strelow completed his first full World Cup year and had a fair amount of success. He 15 top 20’s on the year with three top 20’s and a career best 8th place finish in Ruhpolding. The interesting thing is his performance wasn’t dramatically different. His skiing was right at average for the World Cup this season, which is slightly better than usual. His shooting was excellent, as usual, shooting 90% overall with a 97.5% prone shooting.

Quite the breakthrough even if it was only because he finally got the opportunity to show what he could do. Just like Hartweg and Stalder if he can improve the skiing he has the ability to collect a few more top 10’s. That’s the next big step he needs to take. By the end of his time in the IBU Cup he was regularly in the top 20 of the course time ranks so he definitely can get there. Let’s hope we see it!

Eric Perrot

Overall Rank34
Career Best Rank68
Total Career Races30
Key StatisticSkiing Performance: -1.8% vs Average

We’ve already had a 23 year old (Hartweg) and a 22 year old (Giacomel) on this list. Now for a 21 year old! Unlike some of these men we’ve all been following Eric Perrot as closely as any young biathlete. He’s drawn wild comparisons to Martin Fourcade based on his skiing performances. And that’s exactly how he made this list this season.

At age 21 Perrot is already significantly faster than the average biathlete, coming in at 1.8% faster than average this season. That put him just two spots ahead of Niklas Hartweg. That was an impressive improvement from being exactly the average speed in 2021-2022. Perrot rode this newfound speed to some very high finishes including what is certain to be the first of many podiums in his career, a 3rd place finish in the Mass Start in Oestersund. This was just after he had set his new career best of 6th in the Individual.

Somewhat more difficult to objectively measure, but certainly no less impressive, was Perrot’s performance on the relay teams. He participated in relays in Ruhpolding and Oestersund and in both instances he was 10/10 and he had the French team in position to get the win. It’s a fearlessness that it either or innate or just comes with youth. Either way very cool to see.

Perrot’s next breakthrough needs to come in his shooting. He is currently shooting in the low 80’s the last two seasons with even shooting between prone and standing. Just a slight improvement from this into the mid 80’s would dramatically improve his finishes. He had six top 30’s but just two top 20’s. A few extra percentage points on his shooting accuracy and he would turn those into top 20’s and top 10’s!

Adam Runnalls

Overall Rank38
Career Best Rank85
Total Career Races44
Key StatisticStanding Percentage: 83.6%

Oh Canada! A breakthrough woman and now a breakthrough man! 24 year old Adam Runnalls had a really solid 3rd full season on the World Cup level. Coming into the year he had proven to be solid on relays but hadn’t really shown a lot on his own. This season he actually score the most points of any Canadian man. He grabbed six top 30’s after having just 1 in his career total. This included the first two top 20’s of his career.

Just like on the women’s side, Christian Gow and Adam Runnalls now give the Canadian a solid 1-2 at the top. Is it as good as Norway or France or Switzerland? No, but it’s still a solid lead 2.

Over his career Runnalls was a slightly below average skier and a significantly below average shooter. This season Runnalls made significant improvements on the shooting aspect. In particular the leap was in the standing percentage. Prior to this season he had never shot better than 76% standing at any level. This season he got that all the way up to 83.6% and gave himself a total shooting percentage > 80% for the first time in his career. You look at his 2021-2022 prone percentage of 87.5% and there is really some reason for optimism.

If Runnalls can continue the shooting improvements he is clearly showing over the last two seasons, and if he can just get on the faster than average side of the field, he could make another significant jump next season. He’s just 24 years old and Runnalls looks to have a very bright future!

Young Men Making Improvements:

Endre Strømsheim

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Endre Strømsheim. He’s part of an absolutely huge backlog of relatively young Norwegian men fighting for just 1-2 spots on the World Cup level. Any one of FF Andersen, AF Andersen, Bakken (when healthy), Strømsheim, Sørum, Overby, Uldal, etc. It’s a really massive list. Strømsheim was the beneficiary this season of a somewhat tragic event. FF Andersen had been on the World Cup roster the entire season. With Worlds coming up, the way the allocation was read by Norway (and every other team) was that there were only 5 slots so FF Andersen went to the IBU Cup racing in Obertilliach. He promptly got COVID and when the IBU clarified the allocations FF Andersen was out and Strømsheim came up.

Not surprisingly, considering his IBU Cup success this season with six wins and four more podiums, Strømsheim came right in and was solid. In his 10 races he had seven top 20’s including a career best 4th in Nove Mesto missing the podium by just 2.7 seconds.

Prior to this season he had seven total races on the World Cup. One of those was in 2019 as a 21 year old. The other six races were at the end of the 2020-2021 season when he had three top 20’s. Between then and this season he made dramatic improvements in his ski speed which led to his significantly improved results. He went from 65th in overall skiing in the 2020-2021 season to 16th this season. Comparing him to the average male World Cup biathlete he went from about 1% slower to about 2.5% faster.

His shooting remains right around 80%. For him to make a major breakthrough, and almost more importantly establish himself as a solid member of the incredibly competitive Norwegian Men’s World Cup squad he needs to really solidify that aspect. Add that in with his absurd shooting times (he averaged 22.8 seconds per shooting!) and he’s going to be yet another Top 10 Overall contender.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: