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Biathlon for Beginners

Biathlon consists of cross-country skiing with a rifle on your back, and shooting at targets during the race. Both men and women compete, with women generally doing shorter courses than the men, with the same amount of shooting. Juniors (under 21) also do shorter courses.

Races start and finish at the same place, so for every descent there is a climb. They are run on cross-country skating skis, which weigh about 500g (1lb) each and are about 195cm long by 45mm wide. Poles are about mouth- or nose-high. Because you generate a lot of heat racing, clothing is just a beautiful lycra suit, perhaps with a thin thermal underneath, with thin gloves and hat.

There is one shooting range, usually right by the start/finish area; there are 2 or 4 shoots in a race, each at 5 targets. The targets are metal falling-plate type, at a range of 50m. The standing target is a black disc 110mm (4") in diameter, and prone is 45mm (2") - although the two targets look the same size, shooting prone you have to hit a small are in the middle. Missed targets are penalised in different ways, according to the race. Rifles are small-bore (0.22"), and a lightweight version of a 0.22 target rifle, with modifications for carrying harness, quick cocking and reloading, and a magazine feed.

Races are:

  • Individual: 20km for men, 15km for women. 4 shoots (prone, stand, prone, stand), with penalty of 1 minute for each target missed. Time-trial (ie individual) start.
  • Sprint: 10km (men)/7.5km (women). 2 shoots (prone, stand), with a 150m penalty circuit for each miss (completed after the shoot). Time-trial start.
  • Pursuit: 12.5km/10km. 4 shoots (prone, prone, stand, stand), with 150m penalty loop. Competitors start in the order and at intervals determined by the previous day's race, so that the first to finish is the winner.
  • Mass-start: 12.5km/10km. 4 shoots (prone, prone, stand, stand), with 150m penalty loop. Competitors all start together, so first over the line is the winner. Normally limited to 30 starters because of the carnage that would ensue if there were more.
  • Relay: 7.5km. 2 shoots (prone, stand), but you have 3 spare rounds for each shoot to mop up any missed targets (the penalty is that they take time to load by hand). 150m penalty loop for targets still standing after the 8 rounds. Teams of 4, with a mass start. At the British Championships in Ruhpolding 2000 there were 44 teams on the start line: apparently the biggest biathlon mass-start in the world.

Internationally, biathlon is a Winter Olympic discipline, and World Championships are contested in non-Olympic years. Junior World Championships are annual. There is a World Cup series consisting of 8 meetings, with 2 or 3 races at each. There are Continental Cup series (European and N American) as a second rank of international competion, which also have junior races.

Summer Biathlon is a discipline with its own world championships, consisting of running and shooting (rifles are left at the range). There are also occasionally mountain-bike biathlons. There is a British Summer Biathlon Championships at the national biathlon centre, Glenmore Lodge by Aviemore, each September. There are occasionally further races at Ash Ranges in Hampshire.

The top nations are Germany, Norway and Russia; France, Italy, Byelarus, Latvia, Austria are also very strong. Britain ranks with Switzerland, Canada and USA around 18-21, a triumph over our lack of snow at home and our paranoid police.

You can watch biathlon races on Eurosport during the World Cup season (beginning of December to middle of March). Some draw a big crowd - the Ruhpolding world cup gets about 15,000 spectators.

If you want to take up biathlon, there is a lot to do, the order depending on where you start.

  • Get in touch with the British Biathlon Union (or me) and ask for pointers as necessary.
  • Learn to shoot - probably by joining a smallbore shooting club (details from the National Smallbore Rifle Association or your local police). Target air-rifle is just as good (for standing - I am not sure whether they do prone shooting) and does not have so many legal difficulties.
  • Get a firearms certificate - speak to the police or your gun club (this can take some time)
  • Get a rifle - second hand is probably best.
  • Get fit - you don't need to be able to ski to do Summer biathlon.
  • Learn to ski - ideally join a club (contact English Ski Council or Snowsport Scotland) and get coaching on roller-skis. Otherwise you will have to go abroad and learn - and you don't get good by skiing one or two weeks a year. There are commercial packages teaching track skiing, or you can just find a resort and a ski school and do it.
  • Find people to train with, as you will learn far faster than you would alone. This probably means a local army regimental team.
  • Find some races to do. British races are all organised by the military, and include the Summer Biathlon Nationals in Scotland in September, and the Nationals in Bavaria in January/February. The standard at the nationals is mixed, but you ought to have a reasonable basic competence before entering.