Martin, Simon Desthieux, Anais Bescond, Justine Braisaz Lead France
Going into the new season, the French team returns with another strong team that features a mix of established veteran and rising stars, all with Olympic medals in their trophy cases.
Martin Fourcade, Simon Desthieux, Anais Bescond and Justine Braisaz are the leading lights for the French squad that is consistently strong every season for more than a decade. Fourcade and Bescond, both now over 30 provide the most experienced veteran presence while Desthieux and Braisaz, at 26 and 22 are experienced but still improving as their stars continue to rise. Consistency is the byword for the French team. Neither the men’s and women’s squads have won the Nations Cup in the past 10 seasons, but neither has ever been out of the top five, with both teams either second or third in six of the ten. This past season, both teams finished second in the Nations Cup for the second year running.
Relays, both regular and mixed have been and will continue to be a strong point. French relay teams are always eager to point out the “team” aspect when they make the podium. They may not always have the best individual (except for the past seven seasons with Fourcade), but when they step on the relay starting line with four individuals, the magic frequently produces a podium spot.
Martin is the Man in Charge
World Cup Total Score: 1st Martin Fourcade, 8th Simon Desthieux, 10th Quentin Fillon Maillet, 20th Antonin Guigonnat
For the seventh consecutive season, Fourcade remained the “Man in Charge,” even after the best efforts of Johannes Thingnes Boe to unseat him. The French star did relinquish the Yellow Bib for one competition in Östersund, but that was it. Fourcade again had a masterful season, winning nine times while stepping on the podium in 20 of the 21 World Cup individual competitions that he started. He eclipsed the “King of Biathlon” Ole Einar Björndalen and the best-ever woman Magdalena Forsberg’s six Total Score titles by his 7th in succession. Fourcade also recorded his fourth Crystal sweep, the third in a row, taking the Total Score plus the four discipline trophies.
Besides his domination of the World Cup tour, Fourcade added to his growing resume with three Gold medals in Pyeongchang; he now has more Gold medals than any other French athlete in history.
Consistency on Tracks and Range
All of this success is due to one basic thing, that same word, “consistency.” The almost permanent holder of the Yellow Bib every summer goes back to the basics, building a strong base. His heavy summer training program last season serves him well, providing the strength to be as good at the end as at the beginning. Fourcade was never far from the best on the tracks last season; looking at one individual competition at each World Cup venue, he had the fastest course time in four instances, the second fastest once and third fastest four times. That is consistency…On the shooting range, it was the same: 90% shooting for the second season in a row. He shoots fast or slow, whatever it takes to close the targets. Add his skiing and strength to outstanding shooting week after week; it is easy to see why he is the best.
More of the Same for Martin
Looking to the new season, expect much of the same. He added another French summer title in mid-October, with a sprint win, then taking a close second in the pursuit; a typical Fourcade fall. It is hard to see where he can improve in the upcoming season, unless he comes in with the amazing shape of a few years ago in Östersund. He had two sprint penalties and still won by 51 seconds, over Arnd Peiffer with a single miss. So, maybe he could be faster on the tracks and then he could maybe bring his shooting up to 93 or 94%. Everyone knows what that would do to the competition; they might just stay in bed. Still, Fourcade has to remain aggressive and focused in order to hold on to Yellow and grab more titles.
Big Year for Desthieux
Last season was Desthieux best ever, 8th in the Total Score, his first World Cup podium with 2nd in the Tyumen sprint and an Olympic Gold medal in the mixed relay. This all comes after up and down years, going from 57th to 20th to 56th to 16th to 25th to now 8th in the Total Score. In the more successful years like 2015-16, he shot well, 87% overall (91% in standing). This past season, the shooting was down to 81% but the days with two or less penalties gave him four top six results and numerous spots in the top 15. After the opening week, his worst result was 21st, resulting in a solid year.
Summer Champion Desthieux
Desthieux has carried his good form from last year through his summer training. He was second to Fourcade, 27 seconds back in the French Champs sprint; both had a single penalty. Desthieux won the pursuit by 20.8 seconds with 18-of 20 shooting over his teammate. Desthieux’s goal for this season is surely to continue to shoot like that. His skiing is good enough with strong shooting to see him on the podium with regularity.
PR Season for Fillon Maillet
Fillon Maillet might have pipped Desthieux for 8th in the Total Score, had he not been 61st in the Le Grand Bornand sprint, thus missing the pursuit. He proceeded to finish 10th in the seasonal battle but still had a stellar year, with two podiums in Östersund and another in Kontiolahti as well as three other top six results. Like his teammate, the man who makes his own rifle stocks relies on good shooting for this podium drives. He has the ability to shoot clean, but like all biathletes, when it goes bad, the results can be disastrous. He called Pyeongchang with 48th, 44th and 29th places and many penalties “the biggest failure of my career, filled with sadness and incomprehension.”
A healthy summer training program and the resolution of “some personal problems” that led to “losing focus on the shooting range,” seemed to have worked. He finished just two seconds behind Desthieux in the French Champs sprint for third place with a single penalty. A winter filled with zeros and ones on the shooting range will add more IBU medals to his collection.
Guigonnat: Surprising Breakthrough
The big surprise and breakthrough of the season came from Antonin Guigonnat. Until the Le Grand Bornand World Cup put him solidly on the World Cup scene, the 27 year-old was an IBU cup regular whose previous WC trials always resulted in a return to the second division. However, two wins in the Lenzerheide IBU Cup sent him to LGB and he responded with a clean shooting sprint third place, followed by 12th in the pursuit. Third in the Ruhpolding mass start, again shooting clean secured his Pyeongchang ticket and a relay slot. His 20th place in the Total Score is impressive, considering that he missed the first five competitions.
“Do Something Great”
Guigonnat’s rise to the big time came via the shooting range; a career average in the 70’s jumped to 85%. After his first podium he said, “I always trusted in myself to be able to do something great like today.” That is all it took and will take for him to have an even better season.
The French team is more than these four. 23-year-old Emilien Jacquelin won the first IBU Cup sprint in Sjusjøen and jumped to the World Cup. He later finished 5th and 6th in the Antholz sprint/pursuit, securing an Olympic berth. Jacquelin has the tools to rise rapidly in the senior circuit.
Simon Fourcade at age 34 remains in the mix after a couple of less than his best seasons. The determined older Fourcade brother hit 88% of his shot in an abbreviated 2017-18 season. His highlights were in the Osrblie IBU Cup, where he had 1st and 2nd places in the two sprints, hitting 19-of-20 shots. If his fitness matches his shooting, Simon could be right on the shoulder of his younger teammates.
Anais Bescond Leads the Ladies
World Cup Total Score: 7th Anais Bescond, 17th Justine Braisaz, 19th Anais Chevalier-Bouchet, 24th Celia Aymonier
Bescond returned from the Olympic Winter Games as the star of the French women’s team, with three medals: Relay Bronze, Pursuit Bronze and a career highlight Mixed Relay Gold medal. The icing on the season’s cake was her personal best 7th in Total Score topping her 2016 9th place and 2nd in the penultimate competition of the season, the Tyumen pursuit. Ironically, that 2016 season and the last one were similar, Total Score bests and three medals in the season highlight. In 2016, it was the IBU WCH with 15K Silver; Relay Silver…and Mixed Relay Gold.
Similar to her male teammate Martin, her strongest point is consistency. She only had four competitions outside the top 20, although all were inside the top 30. Seven were in the top 10; that consistency in scoring points is what it takes to do well in the Total Score. Bescond is equally consistent on both the tracks and shooting range, normally in the mid 80% range with the rifle, with better than average ski speed. However, as in the Tyumen pursuit, she can turn on the afterburners and hold her won with the likes of Kaisa Mäkäräinen.
Another PR Season?
At age 31, Bescond is the seasoned veteran on a team of mid-20’s and younger women. She is now the defacto team leader with the retirement of Marie Dorin Habert. It would not be surprising if Bescond moves back to her traditional relay leadoff leg this season, instead of the anchor slot as in Oslo and the OWG. She acted like the team leader in the French Summer Champs, missing the sprint win by 8.6 seconds, but shooting clean while taking the pursuit title by 46.2 seconds. With the good shooting and maybe a little bump in ski speed, another PR season could be just around the corner for Bescond.
Justine, the Heir Apparent
Braisaz has flashed enough talent to be considered as the next French women’s star; the timing is perfect with Dorin Habert now settling into retired life. Braisaz’s big breakthrough came in the 2016-17 season when she claimed her first three career podiums and finished 6th in the World Cup Total Score. Even with a shortened Olympic season (missed the last six competitions), she took another step forward, with an Olympic Relay Bronze medal, her first-ever World Cup victory, and two additional podiums.
That first World Cup win tells a lot about this lady’s potential. Braisaz’s mass start win came at Le Grand Bornand mass start with huge French crowd adding to the pressure for the home team. In the sprint and pursuit, she had handled the pressure and expectations well, with nice 8th and 7th places. Yet on Sunday afternoon, the pressure was more intense as crowds packed the tracks, waving French flags, hoping for a French victory. The result was a dreamlike sequence: in contention for the whole competition, with a single penalty in the third stage, she came to the final standing and cleaned while Laura Dahlmeier and Denise Herrmann went to the penalty loop. A furious last loop and a 11.2 second win; she recounted, “I saw my wax man with the French flag; I took a breath and yes, it is for me today. It was a very nice feeling to share it with the crowd and all of the French people. It was just like a dream, but the reality is actually better.”
The now 22-year-old showed her championship pedigree; proving she could shoot well, ski fast and withstand the pressure of a home crowd. Going into the new season, that type of performance is what it will take to be regularly on the podium. Throughout the summer, Braisaz looked like a leading light on the team, eventually trading wins with Bescond at the French Summer Champs while shooting clean in the sprint. Shooting has always been her weakness, with last season clocking in at 78%. On the other hand, her ski speed has always been the upside of the equation. With another year of training under her belt, Justine Braisaz could quickly be the team leader.
Accident Slows Anais Chevalier-Bouchet
Back in May of 2017, Chevalier’s Olympic season was almost completely derailed when she was struck by a car while cycling with teammates and suffered a broken collarbone. Just over two months later, she picked up her rifle for the first time; a month later she was rollerskiing. Still, even with as much indoor cycling and other reasonable training as possible, the 2017 IBU WCH triple medalist came to the season at less than top form. The six clean shooting days from the previous season were just history. Yet as the season progressed, she consistently finished in the points, enough to make the mass starts.
Mass Start Renewal
Those competitions proved to be Chevalier-Bouchet’s point of renewal; 6th in le Grand Bornand, 9th in Ruhpolding, and 26th in Antholz, then the crowning glory: 3rd in both Kontiolahti and Tyumen. In the last two, 39-for-40 on the shooting range. Also in that late season surge, the OWG was saved with a Relay Bronze medal and a single mixed relay title with Guigonnat in Kontiolahti. That is the story; injury healed with talent and skills still there. Look for her to be back at full strength this season with another nice string of zeros in the shooting column next to some podium results.
Celia, Chloe and Julia
Beyond these top three women are three more who will impact the French team: Celia Aymonier, Chloe Chevalier and Julia Simon.
Ex-cross-country skier Aymonier has transformed nicely into biathlon. She has yet to shoot clean, but has grabbed several top tens in the past couple of seasons. Her relay legs have been reliable, with minimal spare rounds marked with aggressive skiing. This season will be number 4 and time for the 27-year-old to have that breakthrough day.
IBU Cup Success for Chloe
23-year-old Chloe Chevalier, the younger sister of Anais was second in the IBU Cup Total Score last season, won the IBU Cup Pursuit Score and carried home two Gold medals at the IBU OECH. Her impeccable shooting was the key to the medals and the fine season overall. Another season of training will make her that much better and add to the depth of the women’s team.
Single Mixed Relay Success
Julia Simon has to smile when someone says, “single mixed relay.” Last season, she teamed up for two first and two second places in the IBU Cup competitions. Beyond that, she proved her World Cup worthiness with a one-penalty 12th in the Antholz sprint. Although last year was not her best on the shooting range, in the previous one, Simon closed a gold-standard 96% of her prone targets. If she can do that in a World Cup season, the results will be obvious.
Bottom Line on France: stars, youth and veterans, good shooting, love relays, and Martin; it all sounds like a nice recipe for another strong season.
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Petr Slavik, Evgeny Tumashov, Jerry Kokesh