Head-to-Head Match-ups: Johannes Thingnes Boe vs. French Rivals
As the new BMW IBU World Cup season hits the “10 days to go” mark, it is time to look at who will be standing atop the podium week-after week, grab an IBU World Championship or two and ultimately might hoist that big Crystal Globe when the season closes at some point in 2021.
There are a few givens before the first starter of the season hits the tracks on November 28:
1. The Martin Fourcade era is over, leaving behind an indelible mark on biathlon with his focus on hitting targets first, dominating the tracks and using tactics to secure seven consecutive IBU World Cup Total Score titles.
2. The Johannes Thingnes Boe era enters its third season; big Crystal Globe number three is his to lose. Coach Siegfried Mazet referred to one of his protégé’s meltdowns that brought a new focus, setting up his ongoing success. “When you want to be the best in the world, you cannot let these things happen. I said, ‘you said you want to be one of the best in the world, so behave like the best in the world.’ After that he changed his way of thinking. For me, from that day, he had a goal and knew what was expected.”
Sprints: Simply Start Fast, Shoot Clean
That is the sprint mantra. The Norwegian likes to start fast, shoot clean or close to that, and leave the field gasping for breath. Clean shooting won seven of the nine sprints last season, just the first two, won by you-know-who had single penalties behind the winner’s name. Clean shooting means victory is always a possibility. Last season, Fourcade won the sprint globe, simply because the Norwegian redhead took a couple of weeks off for paternity leave. Fillon Maillet finished 1 point ahead of the Norwegian. However, the reality is that Johannes is the best sprinter now. taking 14 of the 23 sprints he contested in the last three seasons; no one else has more than four.
Boe Brothers and Fillon Maillet
The head-to-head battle this season looks to be two-fold, between the Boe Brothers and Fillon Maillet. Johannes is relentless in the sprints, always blasting away from the start. Tarjei on the other hand does not have the ski speed of his five-years-younger brother, but still can push the pace. The two shoot at almost the exact same percentage, 89% and 88%. The elder Boe brother came out on top in a couple of rollerski competitions this summer, so he is not easily intimidated.
Likewise, Fillon Maillet who beat both brothers in Wiesbaden and won the French sprint title is a lot like Johannes on the tracks; pushing as hard as his body allows. The place where the French star gets close to Johannes is on the shooting range. Although without a sprint win last year, he shot clean four times in sprints. If he has made any physical gains this season, Fillon Maillet will give the Boe brothers a run for the money.
Yet when the dust settles, advantage Johannes Thingnes Boe.
Another “Poursuite” title for Jacquelin?
Emilien Jacquelin won the Pursuit Score Globe and the IBU WCH Pursuit Gold medal, the two biggest discipline prizes last season, topping Johannes in that classic Antholz duel. As fall ended, he won the last rollerski competition in France, unsurprisingly the pursuit. He recently admitted what might be the key to his pursuit success. “to shoot fast and try to do my best every time, not be afraid of Martin or anybody.” That anybody is now Johannes, the man who he topped with tactics (and clean shooting) in Antholz. “I tried to be more intelligent than Johannes who was really fast in the beginning of the loop…I was just focused on myself.”
On the other hand, his Norwegian rival is a pretty impressive pursuer, with ten victories in the past three seasons. True to his sprint style, he likes to start with the lead, push hard and stay clear of the field. When a fearless competitor like Jacquelin shows up, the formula changes. Jacquelin’s big win last season may have shifted the tide, he shot at a 93% clip at the end of the season…and hopes to continue. “The difference was in standing shooting. I shoot well in prone; it is quite easy for me. Standing is very mental. The end of the season was easier for me because I was confident; I shot fast.”
That confidence and desire “to win more races” makes it: advantage Emilien Jacquelin.
Individual title stays in Norway
The 20 km individual is the oldest and least contested discipline, showing up in just two BMW IBU World Cups and the IBU WCH each season. It is the one time, when shooting times go out the window, with the focus shifting to hitting every target or suffer the one-minute penalties. Johannes won the discipline globe in two of the last three seasons; Fourcade the other. Last season, the Norwegian came back from his paternity leave to close all twenty targets, master the new Pokljuka track set-up and take the win. That is how it is done. No one else mastered the discipline like that. In the other two 20 kms last season, he missed two shots. Still his ski speed (frequently aided by superior ski preparation) separates him from almost every other rival.
There is really no matchup, except with again Fillon Maillet. He has next best record with two podiums, and third in the discipline score in 2018 and 2020. His real chance comes with clean shooting. The key to topping the Norwegian is to capitalize on his shooting mistakes.
In the traditional biathlon competition, it is: advantage Johannes Thingnes Boe.
Mass Start; Battle of the Very Best
The mass starts, which has become a true test of biathlon skill may be the most hotly-contested competitions this season. It really is a head-to-head battle of speed, skill and tactics.
World Champion and Mass Start Score winner Johannes remains the man to beat, in another face-off with Fillon Maillet. Siegfried Mazet who has coached both men explained the tactics these rivals know well. “It is all about strategy. Prone is not where you win the race, but there you can lose it. Then as I tell them, it is the goal to reach the quarter finals, the semifinals and final (last shooting). In the final, you have to be stable; need to shoot fast if trying to catch the front or if you are in front, then no need to rush. I want them to make the decisions, like playing poker; you get to the last draw and have to make a decision.” The World Champion’s gaudy 89% shooting average and huge confidence put him in the driver’s seat to make that last draw effective most of the time. He has fourteen career mass start podiums, including eight victories. His approach usually revolves around his ski speed, allowing for a few penalties. Nove Mesto na Moravě last March is a good example. He missed a shot in each of the first three stages, keeping well behind. A final clean standing stage and a brilliant last loop pushed him past Jacquelin for the victory. The Norwegian had the fastest overall time by 35 seconds!
Fillon Maillet is simply good in four-stage competitions with 20 career podiums including eight in the mass start. In his two career mass start wins, he topped Johannes; something few others can say. Last season, he won at Pokljuka with 19-of-20 shooting and the previous year at Antholz, he shot clean for the win. There lies what will make this match-up fascinating: the Norwegian’s flying skis versus the French star’s precision shooting. The French team leader might just be the man to wrest the mass start globe out of the Johannes’ hands.
After closing target number 20 with ease, it is: advantage Quentin Fillon Maillet.
It probably will not be this simple, because several men will win and challenge this season. However, it is most likely that the biggest and most anticipated men’s matchups will involve Johannes, Quentin and Emilien. Stay tuned…
Photos: IBU/ Petr Slavik, Igor Stančík, Evgeny Tumashov