Center Stage in NMNM: Yellow Bibs, Czech Team and Fans
The small Czech Republic town of Nové Město na Moravě takes center stage starting Thursday when the men’s sprint kicks off the final BMW IBU World Cup in December. All eyes will be focused on the Yellow Bibs, Martin Fourcade and Laura Dahlmeier, as well as the beloved home team led by last year’s World Cup Total Score winner, Gabriela Koukalová.
120,000 Fans Expected
Biathlon is back in the gigantic stadium in the central part of the Czech Republic after an almost two year absence; the fans are more than ready. More than 120,000 fans are expected to travel in for the four days of competition; the women’s sprint is Friday followed by pursuits on Saturday and the first mass starts of the season on Sunday. As in February 2015, they will make their presence known cheering loud and long for everyone but especially for their beloved Czech Republic team. This bowl shaped venue in the middle of the forest has maybe taken the mantle of “Super Bowl of Biathlon,” as tagged by Canadian Coach Matthias Ahrens today. With a short history of major biathlon competitions, the 2013 IBU WCH and the 2015 World Cup under its belt, it has developed into an amazing biathlon venue with an electric atmosphere. The organizers have done a splendid job preparing the stadium and tracks with snow from their gigantic snow depot and manmade snow. The weather all week should hover near freezing, so the stage is set!
Tracks and Range
The fans will be a factor all weekend, but there are couple of other things to watch. There is no altitude but the tracks are pretty tough, with a significant climb out of the stadium among others. The shooting range, although protected by high berms on the sides can be very tricky with the wind dipping down on the sides and at times coming directly from behind the athletes. This is no easy place to shoot like Pokljuka. The other part of the shooting equation is the long flat approach. There is no downhill glide to the range; every athlete will have to expend some energy, keeping the heart rate a bit high, in the final couple hundred meters before they shoot.
Fourcade and Dahlmeier: Unstoppable
With two BMW IBU World Cups in the history book, the speculation about which athletes are going to dominate this season is starting to disappear. No question that Fourcade with four wins and a third place and Dahlmeier with three wins, a second and a fourth are in control. Last weekend, these two were unstoppable, leaving the competition in their wake on the tracks; Fourcade hit 39 of 40 shots, while Dahlmeier hit 37 of 40. This week’s schedule could be another sweep. Even with an off-week, both will likely remain in Yellow until 2017.
Fourcade has a 95 point lead in the Total Score, ahead of Johannes Thingnes Boe and Anton Shipulin. Boe was steadier on the range last week with a clean sprint and two costly penalties in the pursuit, but showed as expected that he can battle Fourcade. Shipulin finally got on the podium with two third places and second in the relay, with 38 of 40 shooting. These two will give Fourcade a run for the money all three days this week. A couple of others got back in the mix last week: Emil Hegle Svendsen and Simon Schempp. Svendsen shot clean in the sprint and pursuit and seemed to have some pop on the tracks. Likewise, Schempp hit 39 of 40; he is also rounding into form, maybe not as fast as the others but getting closer. This group plus the young Russians will make for some heated battles, but Fourcade is clearly a step ahead of all of them right now.
Dahlmeier may be the top women, but watch out for 20 year-old Justine Braisaz. She was electric on the tracks in the sprint, shot clean and was just a hair behind Dahlmeier. With fewer penalties in the pursuit, her ski speed will put her on the podium. Kaisa Mäkäräinen is now second in the Total Score; her shooting was back at the 90% level last week and that always make the speedy Finn a threat. Marie Dorin looked good on the shooting range in the pursuit and relay but seemed a bit tired at the end of the relay. If she has her normal ski speed, there will be two French athletes battling for the podium.
Queen Gabi and the Czech Team
Dahlmeier, Braisaz, and Mäkäräinen are all ready for a big week, but alleys in the stadium will be on one redhead, the Queen of Czech Biathlon, Gabriela Koukalová. All 120,000 spectators are hoping that she will win at least once this week and maybe even sweep. Should that happen…cover your ears; it will be loud. Koukalová had a sub-par sprint, 7th last week and a disaster in the pursuit, five penalties and 26th place. However, she was marvelous in the relay, shooting clean and skiing with authority. If that Koukalová shows up, she will be hard to keep off the podium. Behind her, Eva Puskarcikova shot clean in the sprint, has a single penalty in the pursuit and picked up her first podium. A repeat of that will make the fans delirious. Veronika Vitkova has not shot well so far, so she has to step up this week to get up to her teammates’ level.
Young Michal Krcmar was 9th and 10th last week; those plus his 7th in Östersund makes him tops among the men now. His veteran teammates Michal Slesingr and Ondrej Moravec so far have been at the low end of the top 20, with the big result slipping away by a shot or two. These two have the experience and potential to rise to the home stadium occasion and could easily be in the top 10 or better.
All of this will play out starting on Thursday evening at 17:30 CET in Vysočina Arena; biathlon and the home team Czech Republic are going to be center stage and the place will be rocking!