Despite not sweeping the relay globes, the Norwegian juggernaut kept rolling, taking their fifth consecutive men’s globe and fourth consecutive mixed globe. The strong Swedish women’s team claimed their second consecutive globe. Just a week before the new BMW IBU World Cup season opens, those streaks could easily continue.
Norway won every men’s relay last season save Ruhpolding when their IBU Cup team moved up, finishing seventh. Beyond that hiccup, the foursome of Sturla Holm Laegreid, Tarjei and JT Boe with Vetle Sjaastad Christiansen on anchor blew away every foe while regaining the Olympic title after losing to Sweden in 2018. Laegreid is the perfect leadoff leg, a fast skier that shoots fast and accurately. The Boe brothers are the best middle men in the relay business; no middle can match them. Christiansen has matured into the perfect anchor, shooting well while easily handling the pressure. No team can or will match Norway.
France has Quentin Fillon Maillet and Emilien Jacquelin can handle the Norwegians but the other legs fall most likely to Fabien Claude and Antonin Guigonnat. This is a good squad but will they be able to match Laegreid or the Boe brothers in the early legs? This might be a tall order. The French team has to go penalty free with Jacquelin in contention tagging Fillon Maillet as they did in Hochfilzen to have chance of upsetting the Norwegians.
Germany does not have the power of years ago with Simon Schempp, Arnd Peiffer, Erik Lesser and Benedikt Doll, but they still are players. Throw in Johannes Kuehn with Roman Rees, Philipp Nawrath and Benedikt Doll for a reliable team that could podium regularly. This team may be one of Germany’s best bets for a medal at their home IBU WCH in February.
The Swedish men only had one good relay last season, finishing second 10.6 second behind Norway. They should be better this year, with leadoff Peppe Femling winning medals at the IBU SBWCH, along with Sebastian Samuelsson and Martin Ponsiluoma. The Swedes must use no more than five or six spares to give Samuelsson on anchor a chance at the podium. If Samuelsson tags within striking distance of the leader, ask JT Boe what could happen!
Looking for consistency, a deep roster and a medal pedigree, look no farther than the Swedish women. Like the Norwegian men, they only faltered once with an IBU Cup team in Antholz. Otherwise, Sweden was on the podium in five relays and won the Beijing Gold medal. Like Norway, they have a formidable pair of siblings in Hanna and Elvira Oeberg. In front of the sisters are the very reliable Linn Persson and Mona Brorsson, with the potential game changer Stina Nilsson waiting in the wings. Coach Johannes Lukas described the women’s team, “That we were one of the strongest women’s teams was not a surprise. At the Olympics, on the day that counted, with everyone expecting a medal, from the first meter, you saw that the girls were thinking, ‘today we win Gold.’” This season could be even better with Hanna back to “normal,” Elvira even better and the other three fighting for the two other spots on the team looks makes this team the one to beat.
Germany looks like the second-best team on paper, with their Olympic Bronze medal squad returning. Vanessa Hinz and Franziska Preuss have both dealt with health issues, but should be ready. Vanessa Voigt, literally a shooting star, with a year of World Cup experience behind her is one of the best leadoff legs. With the two veterans in the middle to hold position, Denise Herrmann-Wick can duel and win against almost any other woman. Nothing flashy, but a very solid group that has the potential to be just a step behind their Swedish rivals in every relay.
France lost two key players with Anais Bescond retiring and Justine Braisaz-Bouchet on maternity leave. They still have a strong leadoff Anais Chevalier-Bouchet, sister Chloe on the second leg and the last loop powerhouse Julia Simon on anchor. To get Simon in position to challenge for the podium, the French team has Caroline Columbo, IBU Cup star Lou Jeanmonnot and Paula Botet. Jeanmonnot is at 90% on the range, so the choice looks easy and should make the French foursome very competitive.
The Italians have the Dorothea Wierer/Lisa Vittozzi combo on their side. Vittozzi is an excellent relayer, while Wierer can break the field on her best day, Samuela Comola and Federica Sanfilippo put them on the podium in Kontiolahti last year. The younger women like Rebecca Passler, Hannah Auchentaller or Beatrice Trabucchi give Italy more options.
The Swiss team has a nice legacy from the 2019/20 season with second in the Relay Score. Lena Haecki-Gross, Aita and Elisa Gasparin all looked good at the IBU SBWCH. Throw in the 2021 IBU YJWCH double Gold medalist Amy Baserga and the Swiss team could contend in 2022/23.
Norway won four of five competitions in 2021/22, including the OWG Mixed Relay. It might be bit tougher this year with Tiril Eckhoff out for now, and Marte Olsbu Roeiseland behind schedule, but they can repeat. Any one of the top men, no need to name them, combined with Olsbu Roeiseland and Ingrid Landmark Tandrevold will probably win mixed and single mixed relays. The qualifier is the old issue of unnecessary penalties, see 16th place in the 2022 Oberhof single mixed relay. If they stay out of the loop, Norway remains the team to beat.
Sweden has the team to upset the Norwegians; just think Elvira and Hanna plus Martin and Sebbe. All are very good to excellent on the range and their ski speed is unquestioned. Either Oeberg sister and Samuelsson could sweep every single mixed relay this year.
The French team is probably just a notch below Sweden as the new season approaches. Fillon Maillet and Jacquelin, both excellent in relays, are the obvious choices, but Antonin Guigonnat and Julia Simon are the defending Single Mixed Relay World Champions. The steady Chevalier-Bouchet gives France a formidable mixed relay squad. The French team loves relays and will always be in the mix.
The Germans have all of the tools on paper with Doll, Rees Preuss, Herrmann-Wick or Voigt, but they have struggled to get on the podium last season. Still there is enough talent here to grab a top three at least once or twice.
Italy has ¾ of their best mixed relay squad with Lukas Hofer, Vittozzi and Wierer. Filling Dominik Windisch’s spot with maybe young Tomaso Giacomel or Didier Bionaz could make the Italians players. Obviously, the Hofer/Wierer single mixed duo always has podium potential.
Relays are always fun and this season will be no exception; the first peeks at who will rule relays come next week in Kontiolahti. Stay tuned…
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Evgeny Tumashov, Vianney Thibaut