This year’s programme of biathlon races in Pokljuka consists of both sprints and pursuits, a mixed relay, and a single mixed relay. The four-time Olympian Klemen Bauer described the special features and important elements of these competitions.
There is no great philosophy in sprinting. ”It is a full-on race from the start,” says Bauer, explaining: “At times we were tactical and dispersed the strengths. But what happened was that even before the first shot we were 20 to 25 seconds behind some of the athletes. It’s hard to continue when you see that competitors who are ranked lower are ahead of you.”
When competing without tactics, the risk is whether you hold out or not in the end, so a bit of wisdom is still necessary. “You go as hard as you can. You strive for positive dynamics so the last lap is still the fastest.”
“Shooting is supposed to be like in training and it becomes a kind of routine. The time frame is known, but there are differences because the risk in a sprint is usually a little higher for most people than, for example, in an individual event, where the rhythm of the running is different.”
“Everything is clear when shooting. You know exactly how many breaths you take before the first shot, and how many in between shots, and it should always be the same, but it isn’t. The better competitors do in the race what they do in training. The difference in both performances can be even five seconds when it comes to lower-ranked competitors. Not everyone knows how to stay in the right rhythm and the tenths of a second add up quickly.”
Pursuit is a completely different race. Sprint gives the competitor a starting point, which means chasing a good result, or maintaining a good position. In most cases, the running speed is also determined by the speed of the group in which biathletes are running. The opening two shootings are extremely important.
“Theoretically, the absolute sum of running and shooting should always be the same, but it’s not. With good shooting, let’s say two zeros at the start, you can be a part of the faster group that is usually in the front and go with that group. That group can even lead you to be even a little bit faster than you usually are in the races. If you’re behind, you usually don’t have that speed, and the gap increases.”
“The matter is also psychological. A slower group puts you to sleep and you don’t even know it. But when you have a good competitor in front of you, you bite and go, even though he is realistically better than you, and that’s where you create a decisive advantage.”
In pursuit, this also applies to the mass start race, it is believed that there are a few more mistakes with the rifle. “It’s hard. There’s pressure from all sides. You know you can win if you hit the target, and that makes you rush. If there are a lot of competitors behind you, you know you can lose. In all of this, you inadvertently change the rhythm; the challenge is definitely bigger than in sprint.”
Of course, the competitors are different and react differently to all the noise on the shooting range, to direct duels, where the competitors knock down the targets “shoulder to shoulder” and hear the reaction in the stands. “It’s definitely different, because in an individual race you’re on your own position in the shooting range, and here there are many disturbing factors. But there are also those who are more precise under pressure. Who give their best when it’s close, and it puts them to sleep and confuses them when, for example, they have a big advantage, and then they take a risk to waste that advantage.”
Shooting in a relay race is also very special. “You have a team in your subconscious; especially when you are under pressure, when you miss two shots. That’s when you know you’re going to pass the baton to someone and that you’re not alone. Those thoughts on the range are negative, but they’re subconscious and that makes it even harder.”
But the team is also the one that gives a positive effect and often the competitors are more successful in this race than in the individual one. This has been repeatedly confirmed in recent years by the Slovenian team, which was significantly higher placed in the relay than what the sum of four individual achievements promised.
“I think we believed in each other. If Rok Tršan was the one to tag me, I knew that he would perform well in the shooting. I also knew that he could follow the best in the group. It is interesting that he usually did not develop this speed in an individual race, but he always proved that he can do it in the relay. These are things that happen in reality.”
The relay also gives the push of a head-to-head battle for places. “I don’t know why, but it is very important to each of us whether you pass the baton fifth or eighth. Although from the race’s and the gap’s point of view, this may not matter when you pass. But the baton forces you into these duels. It may be a small thing, but to you, it means a lot and with this attitude during the race you also keep in touch with the best, you patch up a hole if it appears. Knowing that together you can show something, it just gives you extra strength.”