#ALGB17 Wrap: Johannes, Nastya, Laura…Then a Gloriously French Day
The spectacular final weekend of competition in 2017 for the BMW IBU World Cup circuit in Le Grand Bornand was one of those best described as “biathlon at its best.” Conditions and the true winter backdrop were excellent as well as pleasing to the eye; the crowds were big, loud and appreciative and most of all, Johannes, Nastya, Laura, Justine and Martin put on an exciting, thrilling and times heart-stopping display of their biathlon skills. It was a fitting wrap-up to the first trimester of the new season.
The first three weeks of this new season ended with a not-surprising scenario: French teammates Fourcade and Braisaz produced shooting range perfection to win the final competitions of 2017, giving their loyal, local fans a better Christmas present than they could have imagined.
Johannes: The Win Streak Continues
Johannes came to France as the defending sprint/pursuit champion from the last World Cup there; he left still holding those titles. The younger Boe brother has raised his fitness, shooting and consistency just enough to be a threat to Fourcade’s supremacy every time he steps on the tracks. He proved that by winning the season-opening 20K in Östersund then reinforced it with two dominating victories in Hochfilzen. After winning the Hochfilzen pursuit, he said, “This is the best start of the season in my career. I just want to enjoy it, because you do not know what the next races will bring…” How about two more victories?
Shooting Range Brilliance
The 24-year-old Norwegian was brilliant all weekend in le Grand Bornand but especially on Friday and Saturday. Thirty shots fired, thirty targets closed with a strong track performance, handing the technical turns and short quick uphills and bridges with ease left Fourcade and everyone else in his dust. On the shooting range, the sage, confidence-building advice of Siegfried Mazet showed up as Johannes settled in before carefully taking those first shots. He would then let go the old rapid-fire scenario, but with every shot finding the target. Although not the absolute fastest shot either day, he gained valuable seconds in each shooting bout. He took the lead in the sprint at the prone stage and was unchallenged.
It was the same story in the pursuit: the lead, faster accurate shooting, Fourcade penalties and game over. After the fourth consecutive win, Johannes admitted, “I am really surprised about my own shape; that I have my fourth win in a row is very untypical me, because often when I do a good race, I do a bad race after.” There should have been no surprise; the young Norwegian put in a lot of hard work to get to this point.
Fourcade was no match either day, although he said he was “satisfied” with both of his second places; probably not really. The man in Yellow hates to lose, but he was helpless both days. He matched Johannes on the range in the sprint, but seemed a bit tight without that usual jumping fast tempo on the tracks. Even without the two standing penalties in the pursuit, he would not have won. Of course, Fourcade and his French teammates were under huge pressure to perform well at home, especially after only one podium four years ago and their unprecedented overall success in the ensuing years. Still the two second places plus the surprising first-ever podium by Antonin Guigonnat and Simon Desthieux in fifth place took the pressure off and more than appeased the crowds.
Good Shooting; Shipulin Returns
The sprint saw some of the best shooting of the season, 11 of the top 12 men were clean with 26 of the top 30 having a single penalty or less. Simon Schempp continued to stay close but just off the podium, while Anton Shipulin started to look like the man who used to be Fourcade’s nemesis, week in and week out. Shipulin is actually shooting better than in some previous years and his skiing is starting to show some pop. The expected names in the men’s field are started to settle where expected in the sprint and pursuit: at or near the top.
Nastya and Laura
Anastasiya Kuzmina is arguably looking better and more consistent than at any other time in her career. Second in the Hochfilzen sprint, a clean-shooing brilliantly-executed pursuit win, then a dominating sprint win over Dahlmeier and second in the pursuit this week. She has always been powerful on the tracks, but even with a few extra penalties in the past three days, her shooting is greatly improved. The 33-second sprint win over Dahlmeier proved just how impressive the Slovakian can be when her powerful skiing and now almost blisteringly fast accurate shooting perfectly blend together. With each competition, her drive to win a third consecutive Olympic Sprint Gold medal looks more realistic. Kuzmina’s big weekend saw her wearing the Yellow Bib for the first-time ever in the mass start; then holding it for the rest of the year, to start 2018 at Oberhof in the Yellow tricot.
Calmly Efficient Dahlmeier
Dahlmeier continued her march to the top all weekend, with 29-of-30 shooting in the sprint/pursuit plus her first win of the year in the pursuit. Last season’s Crystal Globe winner battled on the tracks and was calmly efficient on the range; everything expected from one of the sport’s biggest talents. Missing a week in cold, dark Scandinavia may have been the best thing in her quest for a medal-winning season to match last year.
Herrmann and Gasparin
The biggest surprise and nicest stories in the women’s field came from a relative newcomer and a couple of veterans, Denise Herrmann, Selina Gasparin and Vital Semerenko. Herrmann continued to denounce the many-year learning curve on the shooting range. She remains slow by World Cup standards but 90% shooting in the sprint/pursuit prove she is fast learner while becoming more consistent. Two 5th places prove her Östersund wins were no fluke. Gasparin had her best results in a couple of years, shooting at the 90% level and skiing up in the top 10. She seems to be rounding into the kind of shape that brought her an Olympic Silver medal in 2014.
Semerenko is back from injury and childbirth after disappearing since her Sprint Bronze and Relay Gold medals at Sochi 2014. The shooting touch is back and a solid training year under Coach Uros Velepec has made her very competitive. She has improved in virtually each competition this season. Her sprint third place this week showed the Ukrainian veteran is someone to watch as the season progresses.
Sunday: French Day in the Alps
This last Sunday before Christmas maybe was Christmas for French biathlon fans. In a small village of wooden chalets surrounded by snow-capped Alpine peaks, Justine Braisaz started the day by fulfilling her promising talent with career win number 1 in the mass start. She admitted that the reality of her victory never really hit “until my wax man handed me the French flag as I entered the stadium.” The 22-year-old wore the Yellow Bib last week in Hochfilzen, succumbed to the pressure a bit, and then recovering like a champion with 7th and 8th in the sprint/pursuit before her heart-pounding mass start win.
She lined up next to Herrmann for the final standing stage, as 15,000 sets of eyes focused on her. With nerves of steel, she easily closed the five targets while the German faltered and cruised to victory as her name rang off the surrounding peaks. Her win gave a strong hint about the future of the French women’s team: more like this to come!
Martin, Martin, Martin
Fourcade’s own words best describe his masterful mass start win under as pressure-packed situation as any athlete will ever face: ranked number 1 in the sport, a home stadium and never a World Cup win on home soil. “I cannot rank importance of victories, but in terms of emotions, it is probably the most amazing competition of my life. It was something pretty incredible to be supported by all of the fans. I really lived the dream… …this was probably the most crazy race of my life; I will remember it for a long time…today was mostly a race against myself and I am happy that I succeeded.”
Fourcade: Seven Podiums, Yellow Bib
This was the Fourcade that was missing in the sprint and pursuit, focused, confident, always wanting shooting lane number 1 and devastatingly efficient. The French star admitted that he still has to continue to work to top Johannes. This win with Johannes closing fast in second was a step in the right direction. It is not that Fourcade is having a bad season; seven individual competitions; seven podiums including two wins and he remains in Yellow as 2017 turns into 2018. Johannes remains his biggest foe. Erik Lesser continues the best season of his career, shooting clean and very fast once again and even skiing on a par with Fourcade for parts of the mass start.
Just Like a Dream
Still Sunday was a big day in France; Braisaz and Fourcade’s mass start wins were simply special as Braisaz summed up. “It was just like a dream, but the reality is actually better.”