January GRP Biathlon in Europe, Part 1

31.Jan.2019 by Hallie Grossman

To say January was a busy month for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project biathlon contingent would be an understatement. After taking a short turn on the sidelines as spectators and volunteers for US Cross-Country Nationals in Craftsbury, Hallie, Raleigh, Jake, and Emily headed over to the pond to join Clare, Susan, and the other athletes representing the United States for the January World Cup and IBU Cups. Alex joined a week later starting with the Arber IBU Cup, while Kelsey stayed in Craftsbury to train in anticipation of the Open European Championships held in Belarus in February. Additionally, GRP biathlon Alum Mike Gibson served as the coach for the IBU Cup team for the month.

January by the Numbers

In January, GRP biathletes…

– Raced 487.5km over 52 biathlon races and 1 cross-country ski race

– Took a total of 714 shots in competition (an even split between prone and standing at 357 apiece; this is not always a given as an athlete may shoot different quantities of prone and standing shots during a relay when spare rounds are used)

– Hit 267 of 357 prone targets for a prone shooting percentage of 74.8%

– Hit 248 of 357 standing targets for a standing shooting percentage of 69.5%

– Skied a total of 149 penalty laps

– Qualified for 10 pursuit races (4 on the World Cup and 6 on the IBU Cup)

– Qualified for 3 mass starts on the World Cup

IBU Cup 4: Duszniki-Zdroj, Poland

The first week for Hallie, Raleigh, Jake, Emily, Mike and the US IBU Cup team was spent in southern Poland, just a few miles from the Czech border, in the small-mountain town of Duszniki-Zdroj. The week kicked off with… excitement, we’ll say, as one of our vans busted its wheel bearings not 5 minutes from the Munich airport. Sparks flew, the van fish-tailed, and the axel screeched until we could get off the autobahn and to a mechanic. A few hours and a van shuffle later and we were back on the road and made it to Poland by evening.

The race-course in Poland was pretty flat; but as Mike Gibson put it, it is easy to ski, yet hard to race. A flatter course can be deceptively hard, and this was the case in Duszniki: long gradual climbs, flats, and straight-aways (plus one steeper climb) made for long working sections and little opportunities to find recovery during the race. The racing schedule in Poland was also challenging: Friday was a sprint time trial for the US team, followed by an IBU Cup sprint on Saturday (these first two races were to select athletes to fill the US squad for the World Cup relay in Oberhof, Germany the next day), and then yet another(!) IBU Cup sprint on Sunday. Emily, along with Joanne and Max from US Biathlon, qualified for the World Cup relay and so on Saturday night, after two challenging days of racing, drove six hours to Oberhof to race with the big guns the following day.

Poland was incredibly cheap; Jake bought 10 chocolate milks, 1 kg of clementines, peanut-butter, jam, two chocolate bars and a loaf of bread for the equivalent of seven US dollars. We enjoyed going out to lunch, eating large, delicious pizza, and spending $6-8. It goes without saying that we loaded up on snacks for the rest of the trip while in Poland (on the flight home Hallie was still working on Polish animal crackers – they were fifty cents), especially in anticipation of staying in spendy Switzerland during the final IBU Cup in January.

Coal-burning Polish buildings lined Duszniki’s central plaza

World Cup 4: Oberhof, Germany

The sun shown bright for us just one day in Poland and Oberhof- a rarity especially in Oberhof. On that sunny day, Susan in Clare both finished in the top 15 in the sprint, a highlight of the season so far. The rest of the week the weather was back to its normal “Snowberhof” (as Clare called it) self and it snowed and rained and rained some more for Clare and Susan in the pursuit plus Emily, who made the long trip from Poland the night before, for the relay.

So needless to say there were challenging conditions! For both races the course was significantly rutted out due to the rain and near-freezing temperatures. Add to that a downhill turn that was banked outward (think the opposite of a banked water slide) and the results were… crashes. Many athletes in the field ended up with broken skis, and a few unfortunate souls broke rifle stocks. Clare had an epic tie-up and went down in the finishing stretch of the pursuit. After fog and wind swept in for the relay on Sunday making for tricky shooting conditions. “But not unfair,” as Clare said, “We are prepared for exactly this kind of thing”. Biathlon can be a challenging sport on a calm bluebird day. Add wind and fog and it can become flat-out frustrating. But ours is an outdoor sport and part of the game is adjusting our shooting to obstinate weather conditions by reading the wind flags and being patient with each shot. Shooting in such conditions becomes not only a test of practice but also one of composure, and, when things go awry, perseverance. This is one of the great aspects about biathlon: it tests you beyond skill and fitness and challenges you to stay composed and handle pressure in myriad circumstances. On this day our women’s team managed the conditions well, especially on the track, and finished 13th despite five trips to the penalty loop.

Clare’s artistic tangle with a competitor

Clare with camera time and a big lead early in the Oberhof relay after prone shooting

IBU Cup 5: Arber, Germany

The second week of IBU Cup racing took place in Arber, Germany. Emily came south from Oberhof, Alex east from Craftsbury by way of Munich, while Hallie, Raleigh, and the rest of the team hopped west across the Czech Republic from one border to another; Arber lies just five kilometers from the German-Czech border.

The six locations where GRP biathlon team members raced in Europe in January. Arber is right on the German-Czech border.

The first race in Arber was a Short Individual, a race format new to the IBU. While the traditional Individual event is contested over a 20km distance for the men and a 15km for the women with four shooting stages and 1-minute time penalties for each miss, the Short Individual was instead a 15km race for the men and 12.5km race for the women with 45-second time penalties. As was the case here, new race formats, timing systems, rules, etc. are often introduced on the IBU Cup before they make their way to the World Cup (Of note: in addition to the Short Individual, two other new race formats, the Super-Sprint and the 60-person Mass Start, are on the IBU Cup schedule for this season). Moving forward, the Short Individual may be used when a longer loop is not available or when weather conditions make holding the longer Individual event excessively cumbersome. The Arber course was quite different from that in Poland, yet simple: leaving the range, biathletes descend and descend, then turn and climb and climb all the way back to the range to shoot or finish. Another noted ‘bonus’ of racing the Short Individual in Arber was that it spared the team from the venue’s notoriously challenging longer loops used for the standard Individual, which descends even further and hence climbs even higher. All in all, the athletes gave the Short Individual positive reviews. “I think it’d be great for TV,” said Raleigh, who finished the event with a career-best 40th place. “To be successful you have to ski a little faster and shoot faster than you would for a 20km individual, where you basically ski like it’s a marathon and shoot slowly.” Hallie added, “I liked skiing the shorter 2.5km loops.” Alex also had a solid performance in the event, finishing 38th, his best IBU Cup finish of the season so far. After the Short Individual, Arber racing wrapped up with a sprint and pursuit over a cold, sunny weekend. A big highlight for us was Hallie finishing 14th in the sprint, skiing fast with clean shooting!

Outside of racing, Arber had delicious German food at the “Family Club,” a spot at each venue where athletes can grab a bite to eat after training or racing, named for what the IBU has branded “The Biathlon Family”. The food at the Family Club varies from venue to venue and usually reflects the local cuisine. Also of interest, JOSKA glass factory, located in Bodenmais (the largest town near the Arber venue) and a sponsor of the race, hosted a glass-blowing event for the wax techs and coaches, where it became clear that glass-blowing must resonate with Mike, as he shattered the competition. The team was also entertained by the Czech stores just across the border; Raleigh described them as “a real-life Ali Baba” where you’d find logo-less products, likely extras produced from the same factory as their branded look-alikes.

A long climb in Arber
photo by Raleigh

Mike blowing glass at the factory in Bodenmais!

Continued in Part 2!