The two squads, filled with veteran stars and rising talent, are the result of the deep French system that continues to rejuvenate itself athletes carefully groomed in the IBU Junior Cup and IBU Cup circuits. So far this season, there is a chasm between the men’s and women’s results.
The new men’s coaches, the ultra-focused Simon Fourcade and shooting guru Jean Pierre Amat spent the summer working on shooting speed/accuracy and building a strong base with multiple altitude camps. High hopes rode on motivated team leader Quentin Fillon Maillet, Emilien Jacquelin having fun again, rising star Eric Perrot, the Claude brothers and reliable Antonin Guigonnat. Yet this group started the season with left turns. They enter 2024 with zero individual podiums, the first time since the1996/97 season when the team roster included future star Raphael Poirée and ironically Erik’s father Franck Perrot.
The only small “successes” came from three sixth places by Fillon Maillet, Jacquelin and Perrot. 2022 IBU World Cup Total Score titlist Fillon Maillet currently sits 14th , Perrot 16th, and twice IBU Pursuit World Champion Jacquelin 18th in the Total Score. Shooting, usually a French strength has been sub-par; all three are 3-5% below last season and personal bests. Amat commented to La Chain L’Équipe after the dismal Lenzerheide sprint when the top three had two, two, and five penalties, respectively, “It was not at all a success…there seems to be a blockage in the sprints.” As for improved shooting speed, he added with frustration, “At the moment, it is not happening.”
Despite their lack of individual success, the French potential showed up with two relay podiums including an impressive Hochfilzen second place.
There are glimmers of hope for podiums. Jacquelin skied aggressively, leading the first half of the Lenzerheide Mass start, shot fast and clean in prone before two standing penalties. Fabien Claude went 18-for-20 in 11th and Fillon Maillet 17th. The bright spot: Jacquelin and Fillon Maillet were 1-2, and Claude 5th in shooting times.
Jacquelin indicated on La Chain L’Équipe that things are heading in the right direction. “Every day I give my best and try to progress. I have the ability to accelerate, take the lead and control my shots…20/20 was not far away. That is the frustration but I prefer to have no regrets, to try and dare to take the race for myself.”
The team reshuffled just before Christmas, relegating Emilien Claude to the IBU Cup, leaving five men to step up to the podium when the season restarts.
The French women came to the new season with talent but questions: minus the retired Anais Chevalier Bouchet, Justine Braisaz-Bouchet returning from maternity leave, World Cup Total Score winner Julia Simon training outside the team due to the well-documented internal credit-card affair. Yet, this group started fast, leaving Lenzerheide on a roll, Braisaz-Bouchet’s hat trick putting her in the Yellow Bib, Simon sixth and Lou Jeanmonnot 10th in the Total Score.
The season-opening Oestersund Mixed Relay previewed the women’s upside. France won; Braisaz-Bouchet and anchor Jeanmonnot went 10-for-10, spare free. Jeanmonnot won the sprint, her first-ever World Cup victory, outsprinted Franziska Preuss in the pursuit, and headed south in Yellow.
Regarding those victories, Jeanmonnot admitted, “It was unexpected, because it was so hard on skis. I just wanted to do my best (in the pursuit, so) the win was unexpected…When I caught (Preuss) in the last 50 meters, I knew that was my strong point and I knew it would be good.”
Hochfilzen found Jeanmonnot struggling (later coming down with Covid). Braisaz-Bouchet and Simon picked up the slack. The new mother’s third place sprint was her first since winning the March 2022 Oslo Mass Start. “I wanted to be back on the podium as soon as possible. I had this feeling in my mind…It was a good day.” Simon found her groove with a 19-for-20 5th place pursuit.
The pre-season questions faded quickly in Lenzerheide. The 2022 Olympic Mass Start Gold medalist sparkled with a hat trick: perfect sprint, a runaway pursuit win and a brilliant clean-shooting fourth-career mass start win. “It is exactly six years since my first World Cup victory and my father’s birthday. I had to be perfect on the shooting range and it was pretty easy today. I shot 20-for-20 and that was really important for me.” She stood alongside second place Simon in the pursuit, a 1-2 Tricolor day.
These three women carried the French banner for the season’s first four weeks, doing what the men wished for but missed.
Going into the New Year, the French women seem poised for continued success. Braisaz-Bouchet and Simon are performing levels many anticipated while Jeanmonnot’s return to form could pave the way for a future podium sweep. The French men have the talent to get their season on track. Tarjei Boe said recently, “We miss the French competition.” He could regret those words as the season progresses.
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Jasmin Walter