Next Up: Biathlon Bavarian-style in Ruhpolding
Oberhof is in the rearview mirror; the picturesque Bavarian village of Ruhpolding now becomes the epicenter of the biathlon world when BMW IBU World Cup 4 takes center stage in the Chiemgau Arena on Wednesday.
Biathlon Immersed in Bavarian Atmosphere
Fans flock to Ruhpolding year round for its friendly traditional mountain village atmosphere but also to watch the German, Italian, and Swedish teams plus many others training at the historic Chiemgau Arena deep in the valley south of town. This week, those fans will crowd the small main street, wearing their fan club jackets, sipping glühwein or eating a rich Bavarian pastry before hiking out to the stadium to cheer for their beloved German team, but actually for every great performance. When the competition and singing in the stadium ends, they will head to the huge party tent or make their way back to town to Champions Park, with its fireworks and where the fun ends just a few hours before the sun rises. Fans love the traditional Bavarian atmosphere but also the intimate stadium.
This is one of the few places where they can watch ski testing up close, get autograph cards outside the Biathlon Family Club and most importantly almost touch their heroes on the shooting range and the finish line from the intimately-close tribunes.
Good Tracks; Easy Shooting Range
The five competition days in Ruhpolding will as always be fun for both the fans and athletes alike. The athletes love Ruhpolding for its atmosphere, but especially for what is considered the easiest shooting range on the World Cup circuit. The long flat approach quickly lowers the heart rate; the range is well protected with high walls and the mountainside behind it. It rarely is extremely windy. Even on stormy days, the wind flags stay pretty flat. Likewise, the Ruhpolding tracks are fairly easy, with only one really big, hard climb. Crashes are minimal except on the high-speed section coming at the bottom of the hill near the stadium. Of course, like anywhere, heavy snow or even rain can make the most pleasant courses feel miserably hard. The weather looks a bit wet later in the week, so this could be an issue.
Relay Time: Germany's Men
The German fan clubs will get an early start on their flag-waving this week, when the men’s relay kick starts the week on Wednesday afternoon, followed by the women on Thursday. The German men, despite their close third place in the Pokljuka relay are probably better poised to win this week, if they put up the team of Erik Lesser, Benedikt Doll, Arnd Peiffer and Simon Schempp. That would be the likely scenario since a home victory is important and all four of these men are better than a month ago. France won the first relay, but Martin Fourcade indicated that he may skip the relay to rest a bit. If that happens, the French team will struggle to win. The Russians were 10 seconds ahead of Germany in Pokljuka, but right now, even with the rise of the young Russians; they would have to have a perfect day to top the German men this week. Beyond these three, it is a toss-up with maybe the Austrians next in line along with Ukraine.
German Women: No Repeat of 2016
Laura Dahlmeier came back in the Oberhof mass start, looked fresh and ready to compete; her single penalty might have put her in a last loop footrace with Koukalová. Dahlmeier and Co. won in Pokljuka; they will be on an adrenalin rush with the screaming fans all rooting for them on Thursday. Last year, Ukraine’s Olena Pidhrushna nipped Dahlmeier in the final meters for the victory. Dahlmeier will not allow that to happen again; only costly mistakes will keep the German women from the top of the podium. France could easily be second this week with their Anais Chevalier and Marie Dorin Habert at the top of their game. Ukraine is always good in relays, so they will be in the mix. Koukalová and Eva Puskarcikova will lead the Czech team, but beyond these two; they could struggle. Those four are probably the teams to watch.
Schempp, Fourcade, Koukalová and Dahlmeier
It is only World Cup 5; this may already sound like a broken record but these four are probably the top picks in the sprint/pursuit combo this week. Fourcade had his “worst week” of the season in Oberhof with “only one win,” a third and an eighth place. His lead in the World Cup Total Score is now a mere 610 points to second place Anton Shipulin with 379, followed by Schempp and Lesser at 340. Shipulin seems to not be as sharp as in late December while Schempp and Lesser are moving up. Fourcade remains the man to watch and try to beat. He can ill-afford unnecessary shooting penalties. However, his endurance, ski speed and determination are unmatched. Schempp would love a victory in his home stadium over his friend, but as in Sunday’s mass start; it takes a perfect effort to stop the Yellow Bib.
Other men in the mix this week will surely be Julian Eberhard whose ski speed is right up with Fourcade, but not as consistent on the shooting range. Johannes Thingnes Boe will be back and is always a threat, as is Emil Hegle Svendsen; remember January 8, 2016 and the Norwegian sprint sweep!
Koukalová Defends Yellow Bib
Dahlmeier gave up the Yellow Bib to Koukalová by skipping the sprint in Oberhof. The Czech star tightened her grip on Yellow by defeating Dahlmeier in the mass start. Still, this is a “battle royale” in the making. It is the gritty, determined German versus the controlled, focused shooting plus quick skis of Koukalová. This week will be another chapter in what will be a season-long duel for supremacy and that piece of Yellow cloth. Last year, the German women did not stand on top of the podium in Ruhpolding: Dorothea Wierer won the 15K, Koukalová the mass start and Ukraine the relay. Dahlmeier can reverse that, but like her male teammates, everything needs to go perfectly. Koukalová has the upper hand right now, but that can change with shaking legs or one shot one astray. After these two, Kaisa Mäkäräinen was strong in the sprint/pursuit last week and made an amazing comeback in the mass start. Should she shoot clean; the others will battle for second or third. Dorin Habert won the Oberhof pursuit but seven penalties in the mass start doomed her to 14th. She is as good as any of the women in the sprint, so this week could be a four-way battle.
German Team vs. Fourcade Express, Queen Gabi
This week of biathlon in Bavaria should be as fun as any with the German team going for victories. The men will try to slow down the Fourcade Express while Dahlmeier will try to win a couple for the home team and take the Yellow Bib back from Koukalová, the Queen of Czech Biathlon. . . Five days of fun ahead!