Looking Back at Östersund: Spectacular Start to New Season
The first week of the 2017-18 BMW IBU World Cup season is over, with two French athletes, Martin Fourcade and Justine Braisaz wearing the Yellow Bib, heading to Hochfilzen. These teammates symbolize the first week: no surprise that Martin is on top, but the success of Braisaz shows just how closely competitive the women’s field has suddenly become without Laura Dahlmeier and Gabriela Koukalová battling for supremacy.
Martin as Expected
Those who thought the six-time World Cup Total Score winner had met his match after he finished third to Johannes Thingnes Boe in the men’s 20K individual now might have second thoughts. Boe looked as impressive as ever on the tracks, efficient and fast, but he still has not matched Fourcade on the shooting range in one area: consistency. Johannes shot clean in the individual, but missed three shots in the sprint and six in the pursuit. He has the tools, but his fast shooting style means that one miss can turn into two or three before he realizes the target is still white. Fourcade, on the flip side, missed two in the individual, but single prone shots in the sprint and pursuit. He proved in the pursuit yesterday that he can shoot fast or slow, as necessary, hit the targets and at the same time, turn up the track speed and put pressure on his rivals. Johannes will win his share of the competitions this winter, but Fourcade still is the master. He is fitter than he admitted, saying he was only at “80%;” virtually all of his rivals would love to be so fit at 80%! Lots of interesting battles are coming between these two and…
Svendsen, Fillon Maillet, Tarjei, and Co.
A pleasant surprise was the return of Emil Hegle Svendsen to the podium wars; he did not make the podium but shot reasonably well and is fit enough now to compete at the top on a weekly basis. Likewise for the almost-forgotten Tarjei; if he stays healthy, Norway has a powerful 1-2-3 punch and a formidable relay team, with probably the steady Ole Einar Bjorndalen as number four. The French prospects rose dramatically with Fillon Maillet and his handcrafted rifle claiming two podiums. His shooting is in the French tradition: solid and consistent. He still lacks a bit of punch on the tracks but is off to a good start.
Fak, Rising from the Ashes
Jakov Fak’s rise from the ashes is a feel-good story like Tarjei; many people had forgotten the 2015 Mass Start World Champion, Olympic Sprint medalist and third in the 2015 World Cup Total Score after his absence last season. He got better with each competition over the weekend, and sprinted onto the podium with second in the pursuit. When in top form, he is one of the men with the ability to challenge Fourcade and Johannes. Add Julian Eberhard to that list; his shooting speed and accuracy has improved dramatically. Combining his talent on skis with better shooting shows he has taken a big step over the summer.
Erik, Fredrik, Lukas, Mario
Erik Lesser claimed his annual podium in the sprint with a brilliantly fast shooting cadence. He looks like someone thinking about getting another individual Olympic medal. Lukas Hofer was in the mix, with his usual talent on the tracks and a strong day on the range in the 20K; he seems close to a clean shooting day and the podium. Sweden’s Fredrik Lindström missed the podium, but his clean-shooting sprint showed he is close to a breakthrough, missing just a bit of ski speed. Finally, kudos go to Mario Dolder and his big 6th place personal best in the sprint. Several of the big names, here unnamed, who were expected to shine, were not in top form this week. They are analyzing their performances on the trip to Hochfilzen, hoping for a turn in their fortunes.
Justine Moves Up
Braisaz followed up her two penalties in the women’s individual with thirty shots in the sprint and pursuit and thirty closed targets, and two second places. That put the 21-year-old in Yellow; a step up from her fifth place in the total Score last season, leaving her just one short of last season’s podium total…and this is the first week! She does not quite have the ski speed like Denise Herrmann or Kaisa Mäkäräinen, but she is quite young and still is building strength and hours. Regardless, her first week was commendable.
Outstanding Denise Herrmann
Herrmann is just behind Braisaz in points after her outstanding sprint/pursuit double. Her rise is part of a suddenly stronger women’s field. She came to biathlon with a proven set of wheels, that spin effortlessly fast on the tracks. She won the sprint by outrunning a standing penalty. However, she showed poise and focus when she cleaned the final standing stage in the pursuit for the win. That is an amazing feat for a woman with now 13 World Cup starts. Her performances in the German Summer Champs showed that the former cross-country skier was improving rapidly. Although she defers to Dahlmeier who should return this week, Herrmann is likely to give the number 1 woman some solid challenges in the weeks to come…as long as the shooting confidence holds.
Dzhyma and Solemdal
Olympic Relay Gold medalist Juliya Dzhyma had two podiums this past week; her best start ever. Her shooting has improved to go along with a high level of fitness, making her a podium threat every week. The return of Synnøve Solemdal ranks up with Tarjei and Fak; a year ago, she was struggling to train for 5 minutes. Now she has her first podium since January 2014 and held the Yellow Bib for a day. She, along with Marte Olsbu and her strong shooting in the sprint and pursuit gives the Norwegian women’s team a big boost.
286 Starts: a Win for Skardino
Nadezhda Skardino labored for 286 World Cup starts until she claimed her first World Cup victory, shooting clean in the women’s 15K individual. The Sochi Olympic Bronze medalist in the same competition followed that up by hitting the next 30 shots in the sprint and pursuit; she also wore Yellow for a day. Skardino is not the fastest woman on the tracks, but showed her shooting with improved skiing so far this season should see her chasing the podium.
More Competitive Women’s Field
Not to be forgotten in this much more competitive women’s field is the veteran Mäkäräinen. She missed the podium all week, but her skiing was near the top. Just another target or two down will give her a victory. Add Maren Hammerschmidt and Lisa Vittozzi to the mix in the coming weeks with Dahlmeier…the women’s field is stronger than ever. Lots of fun coming starting on with sprints on Friday in Hochfilzen…