Sprint to the Finish of the Season Starts in Kontiolahti
The long sprint to the finish line of the BMW IBU World Cup season and the Crystal Globe prizes starts this Thursday in the forests of eastern Finland at Kontiolahti Stadium. Obviously the big stories revolve around the Yellow Bib battles, especially for the women where the hometown lady will be trying to preserve or add to her lead after a disappointing Olympic Winter Games, while the men’s battle remains a two-person affair.
The big question for everyone this week and in the remaining weeks is just how much is left in the tank, both mentally and physically after the long travel, stress and euphoria of the Olympic Winter Games. Some people will arrive in Finland full of energy and fight, while others will be on the downside of their peak. All of this will add to the intrigue this week as well as in Oslo and Tyumen later in the month.
Kaisa at Home in Yellow
Almost everyone had to spend a day this week traveling to Joensuu for this week’s competitions, that is, except for Kaisa Mäkäräinen. She got some extra rest, did not have to deal with baggage and airline terminals, will be competing on tracks that she knows probably better than anyone else, and most importantly, will be sleeping in her own bed all week. The Finnish star will need every little bit of advantage possible to stay atop the World Cup Total Score and maintain the Yellow Bib. The current standings find her with 592 points, Anastasiya Kuzmina at 577, Dorothea Wierer at 525, Laura Dahlmeier with 490 points Darya Domracheva with 436 points. Theoretically, any of these women could win the end-of-season title with a big rush of victories and collapses by one or more of the group of five. They will all be putting the pressure on Mäkäräinen; especially Kuzmina who has stated the big Crystal Globe is her goal at this point of the season.
Mäkäräinen has the home-field advantage and is surely eager to show that her lack of OWG medals is just another reason to fight harder for her third big Globe. Although she does not train daily at Kontiolahti, the tracks have been a part of her biathlon life more than a decade. The tough tracks suit her and she has been very successful in post-OWG World Cups at Kontiolahti. In 2014, she delighted the locals with a hat trick, winning two sprints and the pursuit. Winning the sprint and mass start this week will not be easy, but those few small advantages might just turn the trick.
Nastya and Doro
Kuzmina had a great OWG, with Gold medal number 3 and two Silver medals. She is having a career season, extremely strong on the tracks, but still at times shaky on the shooting range. The Slovak star leads the sprint standings with two victories and a second place and is one of the few women who can outrun a penalty or two with her blazing speed. That speed is fueled by her strength which fits perfectly to the Kontiolahti layout. If she shows any of her OWG form, she will be on the podium at least once.
Wierer, like her Finnish rival failed to win an individual medal in Pyeongchang, but she did claim her second Bronze medal in the mixed relay. At the same time, she had 7th and 6th places in the 15K individual and the mass start, with two and one penalties, respectively. Those strong performances could be just the impetus to take her closer to the two leading ladies in the Total Score.
Laura and Dasha
Laura Dahlmeier was the undisputed early star in Pyeongchang with sprint/pursuit double Gold medals. With the OWG pressure off, she could take a run at Yellow starting with a sprint win on Friday. A clean-shooting day will put her in the mix and take away some of the OWG relay disappointments.
Domracheva, unlike Kuzmina and Dahlmeier did not have a good start in Pyeongchang. Yet in the mass start and the Gold medal relay, she seemed more relaxed and focused. Like Dahlmeier, the OWG pressure is over; two podiums this week are a possibility. The Belarusian has a history of success in Kontiolahti. She won two IBU YWCH titles in 2005 and picked up her first two World Cup victories at this venue, just weeks after her first Olympic medal (15K Bronze) in 2010.
Of course, any one of a number of other women will surely be chasing the podium this week, but these five will probably all show up ready for some heated battles and a run at more glory.
Deciding Week in the Two-man Show?
Back to the same old story line: the men’s competitions are a two-man show of Martin Fourcade and Johannes Thingnes Boe. Could this be the week where there is some separation?
Fourcade came away as the bigger winner in Pyeongchang, with two individual Gold medals and a mixed relay Gold medal. Of course, Johannes trip to Korea was no sinking of the Titanic: 20K individual Gold medal plus mixed and men’s relay Silver medals. Well, maybe the four sprint and six pursuit penalties in 21st and 31st places did cause his ship to take on some water, but those are history at this point of the season.
The French star has a solid mental advantage from Korea and is wearing Yellow. He will battle hard to try to win the World Cup Total Score for the 7th, yes 7th time! All it will take is the Fourcade-patented steady well thought out shooting and the usual solid skiing.
However, Johannes like Mäkäräinen, has this little memory in the back of his mind: a 2014 post-Olympic hat trick with two sprint wins and a pursuit title. Plus, he won his first IBU WCH Gold medal, taking the sprint title at this venue in 2015.
Ready to Challenge
Without knowing just how well either recovered from the Korean trip, the money today is that little will change this week. At the same time, several other men will be pressing to win or at least get on the podium. No one will be surprised to see Anton Shipulin taking his chance to upend the Olympic Gold medalists like Fourcade, Johannes or Arnd Peiffer. As usual, look for someone who missed out on the podium in Pyeongchang to grab a podium spot, like Julian Eberhard or Tarjei.
The two mixed relay on Saturday will determine the seasonal mixed relay title. Germany currently leads that competition with 10 and 12 point leads over Norway and Italy, respectively. Olympic Mixed Relay Champions France could have a say in the outcome if they can muster two wins. However, that will be a big challenge. Germany will probably show up looking for some revenge after that 4th place by a hair in Pyeongchang. Norway may be hindered by the absence of Emil Hegle Svendsen, out with illness. To go back to the 2010 post-OWG mixed relay in Kontiolahti, the podium was Norway with Tarjei Boe on anchor, Germany with Simon Schempp on anchor and Italy with Lukas Hofer on the third leg. Not much has changed in the past eight years, same teams, some of the same faces all still in the mix. Simon Eder and Lisa Theresa Hauser will be going for another win in the single mixed relay to go with their Östersund win. Do not be surprised to see Fourcade team up with the retiring Marie Dorin Habert to go after one more win. As always, these two relays will be a lot of fun.
Ready for the Sprint…or the Beach
Kontiolahti is going to be similar the season-opening competitions in Östersund. Many athletes will be ready for the long sprint to the end of the season, but a few will be past their OWG peaks and will be thinking about a beach in their future. By Sunday evening, the Yellow Bib battles will be clearer and one more small crystal globe will be decided. It will be obvious who has just enough in reserve to survive the last weeks of the season and take home one more prize.