Scoping Out Biathlon

By Jay Bender

Perhaps you’ve been ski racing for a number of years. Maybe you’d like to start racing. It’s fun, it’s challenging and it’s something that can motivate you to get out skiing.

You can figure out your training regimen, work on your technique and yet, despite all that, you know about where you’ll be on the result list. Race after race, the same general bunch of genetically gifted athletes are up there at the top. Maybe you’re even one of them, but doesn’t it almost seem a little cut and dried sometimes? Sure, the order changes slightly here and there but nobody is coming out of 15th place, from two minutes back, and winning it all. And no one is moving from way back in the 30s up to a top-10 finish in the final lap.

Well, there is a sport that can inject that kind of dark horse, come-from-behind excitement into your racing: biathlon. Adding an element the faster skiers aren’t automatically better at levels the playing field.

If you can out-shoot another competitor on the rifle range, you can gain a lot of time while they are skiing around in circles on the penalty loop! Of course, biathlon is primarily a ski race and ski speed definitely counts. But the element of target shooting can really make it interesting, changing who’s in the lead multiple times during the course of a race. That’s one reason biathlon is so exciting to watch, and why it is the most watched televised winter sport in Europe. Biathlon is as big over there as NASCAR is in the U.S. And it’s partly because there’s more to it than the same fast skiers being in the lead from start to finish.

Biathlon Contacts in the U.S. (PDF)

You’ve seen it on TV during the Olympics, but just to review, biathlon is a timed ski race composed of relatively short ski loops, generally two or three kilometers, with bouts of target shooting in-between. Shooting bouts are either prone (lying down) or standing. At each bout, the skier has five shots with which to hit five small targets 50 meters away. For every target missed, a 150-meter penalty loop must be skied.

It’s easy to see that five missed targets can be costly. A skier who shoots “clean” can be well ahead of a faster skier who didn’t shoot so well and is spending time on the penalty loop. The challenge of learning to shoot accurately with an elevated heart rate, and thereby moving up on your competition, is what makes biathlon so much fun.

The different race formats also keep things interesting – the sprint, pursuit, mass start and others. Some, like the sprint, have only two shooting bouts. Some formats have four bouts -- two prone and two standing.

The rifle, by the way, is never loaded when on the skier’s back out on the course. The loaded magazine is only inserted when the racer is on the shooting mat, with the rifle pointed safely down range.

Some might think biathlon is all about the guns. It isn’t. Biathlon is a ski race with shooting stops to add an interesting, challenging element. And biathlon is growing. All over the U.S., clubs are springing up, building ranges, and hosting races.

If you’re a skier and think you might like to try biathlon, most clubs will teach the basics of the sport. In most cases these clubs have .22 caliber rifles that new biathletes can use. That way you don’t have to buy one just to see if you’re going to like biathlon. Rifle safety, of course, is paramount and all of these organizations will require that you take a short U.S. Biathlon Association rifle safety certification class before handling a rifle or competing.

While many .22 rifles will work for biathlon, there are some rules to follow and some characteristics of a biathlon-specific rifle that will allow you to be competitive. Scopes are not used, only “aperture sights.” The rifle must weigh at least 7.7 pounds and should use five-shot magazines, with a magazine holder attached to the stock. For winter racing, a harness allows the competitor to carry the rifle on their back while skiing.

Buying a suitable rifle can cost $1,000 or more. Once you have made that investment, though, you will have only race fees and ammunition to buy. Since the rifles tend to hold their value well, you can usually sell one for at least as much as you paid for it, should you decide to get out of the sport later. Initially, of course, you can use a club rifle. But, if you decide to race often, you will want to get your own rifle so that you can customize the fit, learn its idiosyncrasies and have something to practice with on your own.

At most club venues in the U.S. the targets used for biathlon are steel “knock-down” targets: five black, steel paddles in a row behind a white, steel plate with five holes . When one is hit, it rocks back and a white indicator paddle comes up in its place, showing a “hit.” It also makes a satisfying “clank” that, as a biathlete, you will come to love. The immediate feedback and thrill of dropping targets during a race is something that is hard to beat. Leaving the range knowing you will head straight back out on course is a great feeling, particularly if that hot shot you started behind is headed for the penalty loop.

Many of those competing in biathlon in this country are adults, but that is changing. As the sport has grown, more and more junior biathletes have come on the scene. There are a lot of parent-child biathlete pairs attending races these days, and we see kids as young as eight participating with a parent. Sometimes mom or dad just helps out as an official. It can be a great way to be engaged in an activity with your child.

Disabled athletes also compete in the sport, a truly inspiring thing to see. There is also no shortage of men and women in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond having a great time doing biathlon. That’s not surprising. It really is a lot of fun.

Find a club near you (see sidebar) and visit their web site. Send an email to one of the contact people and ask how to get involved. Many clubs have specific “intro” days, but most will help you get started at just about any event they have on their schedule. You will find a safety conscious, fun-loving group of people who enjoy a challenge. And you just might find yourself…. on the podium!

Subscribe Now

Don't miss a single issue of Cross Country Skier this season. Subscribe here>