Sunshine and Snow: Big Names Reign in Antholz
Once again, Antholz delivered with a couple of beautiful sunny afternoons and more snow freshening up the already Winter Wonderland setting. In that backdrop, the World Cup circus staged one final tune-up before the quadrennial Highlight, the Olympic Winter Games next month; it was a thrilling four days competition.
However, when it was all over yesterday afternoon, not much had changed competitively. Many tried, but most failed to get on the podium or that big breakthrough performance. The exception being Tiril Eckhoff’s totally unexpected clean-shooting sprint win and teammate Erlend Bjoentegaard’s first-ever individual podium in the mass start. Beyond that, the top six women in the World Cup Total Score were all on the podium as well as five of the top six men. The other podium “outsiders” were no surprise: triple Olympic champion Darya Domracheva, Dorothea Wierer and Arnd Peiffer.
This final tune-up weekend set the stage for Pyeongchang; most of those in the hunt for Olympic medals showed their readiness for that big show with either brilliant or very solid performances in the packed-to-capacity Südtirol Arena.
Johannes and Martin
Johannes got the upper hand right from the start this past weekend, wining the sprint despite a penalty while Martin Fourcade shot clean, but was no match on the tracks. The next day, the young Norwegian demolished the pursuit field and the Yellow Bib with one of those perfect days: efficiently fast clean shooting and solid skiing including time to slow down and enjoy the last loop. Fourcade had a penalty and maybe not the best skis, but hung on for second. That gave Johannes three wins in a row over the Yellow Bib, dating back to the Ruhpolding mass start. That all changed in the mass start when the French star took control right from the start, leading out of the stadium; a man on a mission. He was focused, had two penalties (the second just a careless mistake that did not change the outcome; he won and was back in control. Johannes, to his credit, skied like a mad man after five penalties to salvage sixth place.
Cream of the Crop
Those three competitions proved one thing: these two men are the cream of the crop, in a league of their own, far from the maddening crowd…and all of those other clichés. Johannes has eight wins, while Fourcade has six and sixteen consecutive podiums. You know who is still in the Yellow Bib, 834 to 780 points for Johannes. Third is Jakov Fak with 467 points. Johannes can shoot well, but is still inconsistent at times. However he has wings on his skis. The Yellow Bib has maturity, steady shooting and still has the ski speed to cover huge amounts of territory quickly. It is these two and everyone else trying to catch up.
Norway, Germany and France
The Norwegian men fared well this weekend, especially adding Tarjei and Erlend Bjoentegaard on the mass start podium to Johannes’ exploits. Emil Hegle Svendsen showed he still has the “right stuff” with a brilliant 32nd to 5th place clean-shooting day in the pursuit. Lars Helge Birkeland was 6th and 9th in the sprint/pursuit, a solid back-up to the four above.
Likewise for the German men, but a step below the Norwegians; Arnd Peiffer was 3rd and 4th in the sprint/pursuit. Benedikt Doll and Johannes Kuehn had a nice mass start. Whenever Doll shoots well, he is a threat; two penalties yesterday and just 16 seconds back.
Fourcade’s French team was again impressive with at least two men in the top 10 each day. Young Emilien Jacquelin proved to be the rising star, with his 5th/6th in the sprint/pursuit. Simon Desthieux, 7th in the Total Score was steady all weekend with 11th, 8th and 10th places.
Best of the Rest
Anton Shipulin got on the podium for the second time this season with third in the pursuit, after fourth in the sprint. He seems to have regained his fight; no doubt he has the skills to challenge the top duo. Jakov Fak, third in the Total Score shot well again with one penalty in the mass start, but is lacking ski speed and finished 12th. Beyond this group, no one else showed this week that they are ready to challenge for the podium.
Dahlmeier and Domracheva
Simply said, seven women stole the snow this week, but two names stood out: Laura Dahlmeier and Darya Domracheva. Dahlmeier placed 2nd, 1st and 5th, while Domracheva was 4th, 3rd and 1st. The German wins the “Queen of Antholz” with her 2nd place better than Domracheva’s 3rd. Dahlmeier was good, but not brilliant like last year, not quite as fast on the tracks and not shooting “lights out.” Still she has become more consistent; her pursuit win was an outstanding effort after the early “lazy” penalty. The Belarusian has come in her words “step-by-step” and now seems poised to defend her three Olympic titles. He most recent individual competition places are: 7th, 7th, 6th, 6t h , 6th, 4th , 3rd and 1st. The one mass start penalty showed good composure and flashes of her ski speed. After this weekend, these two are in charge of the women’s competitions.
Kaisa Mäkäräinen is in the Yellow Bib. She had an off day in the sprint with three penalties and 26th place. However, she was flying in the pursuit with a 19 position jump. In the mass start, four penalties and 3rd place, 16 seconds back: brilliance! When the Finn shoots well (and sometimes when not), she can still dominate. With a tip of the hat to the other ladies, Mäkäräinen had a nice trip to Antholz and should be full of confidence after that mass start.
Kuzmina and Wierer
Since Oberhof, Kuzmina has been tired and her shooting went downhill. Still in second in the Total Score, she got a nice confidence boost with her 2nd in the mass start yesterday. She still has the ski speed and knows how to shoot. The mass start 2nd place was a good set-up for Pyeongchang. Dorothea Wierer was on the podium each week in 2018; her second place in the pursuit Saturday showed the ski speed was back. But on Sunday all of the media and fatigue caught up; a fading 7th in the mass start. Still, like Kuzmina, the Italian showed her flashing skis this week and is still trending up; just needs to hit one more target.
Eckhoff and Vitkova
Tiril Eckhoff has a spectacular sprint win, putting her back on the list of contenders; then was 4th in the pursuit and 19th in the mass start. No one has ever doubted her potential but this win was the only hint of it all season. Four pursuit penalties are too much, no matter how fast you ski. Veronika Vitkova picked up another podium in the sprint and was 7th in the pursuit. Her 27th in the mass start can be called a blip (and she is no altitude fan), but generally, she has been on the rise all month, and is now 6th in the Total Score.
That was the story from Antholz…the people that were expected to do well, did so. Even though the names were the same, it was a very exciting action packed World Cup. Now it is on to Pyeongchang.