Johannes Thingnes Boe Narrowly Escapes
Twenty-five minutes before the 2020/21 BMW Ibu World Cup season ended, two-time Men’s World Cup Total Score winner Johannes Thingnes Boe was on the verge of not winning title number three. The Yellow Bib was in sixteenth position while his teammate/rival Sturla Holm Laegreid was eighth, virtually atop the standings. Then Johannes cleaned the first standing stage as Laegreid romped off to the penalty loop. That quickly, with thirteen minutes to go, the tables turned. The 27-year-old had a single penalty in the last standing, his protégé added two more and the season-long nail-biting battle for biathlon supremacy was over. The red-haired Norwegian breathed a sigh of relief as he lifted the big Crystal Globe above his head.
More than Raw Numbers
The raw numbers of 1052 points to 1039 points hardly do justice in this intense tussle between the upstart Laegreid and the man who he repeatedly and respectfully called, “the best biathlete.” At the end of the first trimester, it was 428 to 373; a month later 709 to 645; then after the IBU World Championships, the gap was down to 32 points and the pressure was on. The gap narrowed with each competition until that final winner-take-all showdown; Laegreid would shoot better; Johannes would ski faster until the full-season rookie cracked ever so slightly last Sunday.
The defending champion must have known something was up when he went into the season-opening Kontiolahti men’s 20 km individual wearing Yellow and promptly lost it to Laegreid. The then 23-year-old one-upped him on the range, claiming his first-ever victory and the Yellow Bib by 19.4 seconds. The next day, Johannes ripped it from Laegreid’s back with a wire-to-wire, clean-shooting sprint win and never took off the Yellow Bib again. His comments that day set the stage for the next three months. “It was full attack from the start to the finish… “It is very important for the self-confidence to get wins. To have a good start, to shoot well; that is the most important thing.”
There was plenty of attacking all season long, but the 2020/21 version was not the same athlete that everyone saw last season in his two-point victory over Martin Fourcade. In the 2019/20 season, the Norwegian was Mr. Consistency, winning ten times, never finishing lower than fifth (one time) in his seventeen starts. Had he not taken the four-competition paternity break, that total would surely have been higher.
2020/21 World Cup Total Score Focus
This season, relieved at being rid of his nemesis Martin Fourcade, everyone thought Johannes would cake-walk to an armload of wins, IBU WCH medals and crystal. Wrong…after the Kontiolahti sprint win, he only topped the podium three more times, finishing fifth or lower on nine occasions. Not that horrible; just below expectations. He explained, “Sturla and I have almost always been top eight… My big game for the season was the World Cup Total Score. I think I used too much energy on it. That is what I learned from the season, to not think so much about it next year…I could have won more World Cup races like before. I wanted to have an individual Gold medal (at the IBU World Championships), but you cannot have it all. If I had to choose one, I would choose the Total Score.”
Choosing to defend his World Cup Total Score title and the Yellow Bib changed how Johannes approached each competition, which may partly explain his lack of victories. After his last win of the season, the Antholz mass start, he explained, “It is nice to let go of the pressure of wearing the Yellow Bib, to not try to defend it, because it is open; it is a game to win it. Even though I wear the Yellow Bib, it is important to stop thinking about this, to try to pretend that Martin is wearing it and to attack him. I need to lower my shoulder, play more and have more fun.”
Strength and Weakness
At the same time, he emphasized his strength and weakness that would both help and hinder his path to World Cup Total Score title number three. “My shape is really good; that is the best thing…but my shooting has not been good, especially in the races with four shootings.” His shape, bolstered by a two-week training/holiday break training at brother Tarjei’s cabin in central Norway was significant in the final success. In virtually every competition, regardless of the distance, Johannes was either the fastest or very close to the fastest man on skis.
The New Rifle
As for shooting, the concern was obvious. “I found out during the first seven World Cups that I needed a change…a new rifle. Fingers crossed; hoping for the best.” He later added in an Instagram story (paraphrasing), “This will either be the smartest of dumbest thing I have ever done.” It turned out to be neither. He missed 25 of the 140 shots prior to the IBU World Championships (83%), in the next 140 shots, he missed 22 (85%). In reality the new rifle was a safe move, surely good for his confidence. However, it might have been the difference maker in those windy two final standing stages of the season.
The shooting business and the nail-biting reality of the crystal battle came into laser-sharp focus after the season’s penultimate competition, the Oestersund pursuit. Laegreid outshot and topped Johannes for the second consecutive day, with the sharp-shooting youngster taking his seventh win. “I know how strong Sturla and I really are. We have shown in the last races that we are really tight; it looks like both of us do not crack under pressure. We have to do our best race tomorrow; for sure I am nervous. I hope he is; we will have a big fight and hopefully a fair fight, If he wins, I will congratulate him and If I win, I think he will do the same for me. We know what is waiting for us and will just try to do our best.”
Penalties Shift the Tide
The final day was very windy; the top 30 men in the sport racked up 124 penalties, an average of more than four per competitor. The first half belonged to Laegreid with a single penalty to Johannes’ two; the tide shifted in the second half with Laegreid’s three misses to the Yellow Bib’s single. Game over; advantage Johannes Thingnes Boe. He escaped to win the day, barely.
Relief after ‘a great fight”
With the big Crystal Globe in hand, the now three-time Men’s World Cup Total Score winner admitted how tough and sweet this win was. “It is the best possible way to end the season for the sport; to have the overall score lasting until the final shoot of the season. To be the one finishing on top bringing this home, I have no words to describe how relieved and happy I am…Each one has it own story and this one is different…fighting with Sturla was such a great fight for me. He really pushed me to my limits. He has shown that it is possible to do such good shooting every time. I have big motivation to train with him for the next season and hopefully we can help each other to maintain the same level next year.”
Man of the Hour
Johannes Thingnes Boe remains the man of the hour, impeccable on the tracks, still searching for range superiority, but still the best when the chips are down. Another victory, another season in the books, lessons learned and the Olympic season on the horizon. That’s a wrap!
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni