The New Year Starts in Oberhof
A New Year of biathlon and the second trimester of the 2017-18 BMW IBU World Cup season kicks off tomorrow at the DKB Ski Arena in Oberhof. This small Thüringen village, a World Cup host since 1984 is the perennial starting point for biathlon as the calendar turns over to a new year.
This year the program shifts to what could be called a traditional program for Oberhof; one that includes sprint, pursuit and once again, relays. Relays have been an Oberhof staple, on the year-opening program for twelve of the past 16 years since the turn of the century. (Actually 13 times if the 2004 IBU WCH at Oberhof are included.)
Home Stadium for German Team
This is the first of two “home stadium” weeks for the German team, with Ruhpolding following next week. Accordingly, they will be in the spotlight, actually more like an intense laser beam, with fans and the media focused on every achievement and failure of the top-ranked women’s team and second ranked men. Sunday’s relays will be a perfect opportunity for the German team to end this first week of 2018 on a high note. The women will step into the stadium ready to extend their undefeated streak of six, up one notch to seven. The men will be aiming to take down Norway who left them 1:54 back in second place last month in Hochfilzen while staying ahead of the always strong French team.
Kuzmina in Yellow/Red
Before Sunday arrives, the sprint/pursuit combo looms starting tomorrow with the women's sprint, followed by the men on Friday. After the holiday break, there is always a bit of trepidation, with a bit of sickness in the mix and some athletes slipping from early season fast starts, while others continue to improve. Double Olympic Sprint Gold medalist had the best December of her career with two wins, two seconds and a fourth in Hochfilzen and le Grand Bornand. She will be wearing both Yellow and Red Bibs on Thursday. Just behind her in the Total Score is Justine Braisaz who won the mass start before Christmas. Braisaz may not have the ski speed of Kuzmina, but the 21-year-old will surely be in the mix. Overlooking the Germans for the moment, Kaisa Mäkäräinen was second in the sprint last year and third in the pursuit. She was in the mix in virtually every competition in December; just a missed shot or two from more than her one podium for the month. Dorothea Wierer was ill in France and just a bit off all month. It will be interesting to see if this week she will jump ahead of teammate Lisa Vittozzi, with a podium, two fourths and fifth last month. Vittozzi will surely have something to say about the sprint/pursuit results if she still has last month’s form. Beyond this group, think of Vita Semerenko as a serious podium threat.
Dahlmeier and Herrmann
The biggest hope for the German women, last year’s World Cup Total Score Champion Laura Dahlmeier might be caught up in the holiday sickness cycle. She skipped the big show at Schalke last week due to illness and although entered for Oberhof; her status and fitness are up in the air. Therefore, the German spotlight falls on Denise Herrmann, the December “wunderkind” (at age 29) with a sprint/pursuit double in Östersund and two fifths in Le Grand Bornand. Herrmann showed the poise, improved shooting and her usual blazing ski speed all through December. She seems able to handle the pressure so no one will be surprised to see her as the top German woman this week, should Dahlmeier be out or not at the top of her game.
Martin and Johannes!
The men’s sprint/pursuit has just as much intrigue with the Martin Fourcade/Johannes Thingnes Boe dueling likely to continue; these two were by far the best in December. Fourcade closed the month with his emphatic mass start win, his eighth podium of the new season, keeping him in Yellow. Still Johannes won five times, showing that he is a much better biathlete than last season. His four clean-shooting wins surely had Fourcade doing some dry-firing over the holidays. Both will be looking forward to a strong showing on Friday and Saturday to set the tone for the next three weeks in the final build-up to Pyeongchang 2018. Beyond these two, Jakov Fak chased them last month, but had some holiday sickness. Anton Shipulin started to look like his old self in France, getting on the pursuit podium, followed by a clean-shooting mass start fourth place. He might be the man to watch this week. Dominik Landertinger returns this week after back surgery last fall, while teammate Simon Eder is out with illness.
Schempp: Looking for Podium
Simon Schempp probably had “a World Cup podium in January” on his New Year’s resolution list. Schempp, with three fourth places and two fifth places last month, is fourth in the Total Score. He would love another Oberhof win to go along with his mass start win here last January. An Oberhof win or podium is easily within the reach of Erik Lesser; he had a December personal best of three podiums. A podium for this hometown athlete would be extra special. After Schempp and Lesser, Arnd Peiffer is a previous Oberhof winner, was second in the pursuit last season and is pretty unflappable in the big stadiums.
Win #7 for German Women
As previously stated, Sunday should be a big day for the German teams. Regardless of who lines up for the German women; they should win for the seventh consecutive time. Is there any coach who would cry with a relay team of Vanessa Hinz, Franziska Hildebrand, Maren Hammerschmidt, and Denise Herrmann (should Dahlmeier be out) on anchor? The crowd expects and will probably see win by the German women. The Ukrainians should be second and then it will be a battle between France and Russia.
Norway, of Course
The Norwegian men look like winners; Emil Hegle Svendsen, the Boe Brothers and Ole Einar Björndalen are expected in Oberhof. Even shuffling one or two of these big names out still leaves the Norwegians on top. Germany could win, but seventeen spares (Hochfilzen) again (even in many times windy Oberhof) is not the route to victory. Should France field their number 1 squad on Sunday, then there will be a real battle for the podium and maybe the win.
Warmer and Fog!
Weather is always a factor in Oberhof. There was fresh snow on Tuesday, but the weather seems to be warming all week, which is likely to result in the typical Oberhof fog. That, along with the wind and more precipitation could easily affect every competition day. It should be an interesting first week of 2018.
12:30 Men Sprint
14:15 Women Sprint
12:15 Women Pursuit
15:00 Men Pursuit
11:30 Women Relay
14:30 Men Relay