IFSC livestream commentator Charlie Boscoe looks ahead to the upcoming IFSC Lead World Cup season, with some analysis of the Boulder World Cup Circuit past. Who can keep the momentum going and rack up the ranking points for Olympic qualification? Stay tuned for post-event reports and Olympic content from Charlie as the season progresses...
After a frantic Boulder season which was done and dusted in little over 2 months, the IFSC Lead World Cups beckon. The Boulder campaign showed that we are currently watching competition climbing in possibly the greatest era of all time because the men's and women's events are providing different but equally compelling storylines, both of which are likely to continue into the summer Lead World Cups.
On the women's side, one woman is ruling over Lead and Boulder in a manner we've rarely seen in ONE discipline, let alone two. Janja Garnbret (SLO) doesn't even turn 21 until March of next year but she clean swept the Boulder season, winning all 6 events, and has been the overall season champion in Lead for the previous 3 consecutive years. I've been accused of going too Janja stat-crazy during my commentaries but I make no apology for geeking out; we've never seen anything like it before, we probably won't again and I for one am revelling in the outrageousness of it all. She's entered 42 Lead or Boulder World Cups and picked up 25 gold medals from them - as well as 13 other podium finishes - meaning that she has failed to make the podium in just 4 World Cups since she made her debut. Consider what a monumental achievement winning a World Cup medal is, and then just let Janja's statistics sink in for a minute. Worryingly enough for the competition, she seems to have got over this pesky habit of occasionally missing out on the medals - it's been over 2 years since the last one of those 4 non-podium finishes.
Janja will have competition of course, and Jessy Pilz (AUT) managed to get one over Janja in a big way by winning the World Championships last year in Innsbruck. Jessy had a successful Boulder season and looks the likeliest climber to offer a sustained challenge to Janja through Lead season. Jain Kim (KOR) (who, let's not forget, still holds the record for most World Cup wins with 29) also looks capable of winning a World Cup or 2 this year, and Julia Chanourdie (FRA) has really come on in Boulder and will fancy her chances in her favoured discipline of Lead. Sadly we will be denied the chance to see Anak Verhoeven (BEL) (who was second overall in 2016 and 2017) for at least the first 3 World Cups of this season as she continues her comeback from a long-term elbow issue.
There are other threats to Janja, but the reality is that she is SO good that it's hard to imagine her being seriously challenged for the overall title - provided her fitness and motivation hold up. At times she looks visibly bored when Lead routes are too easy for her, and last autumn in China she was as indifferent about competitions as I've ever seen her. She felt there had been too many undercooked routes and that women's Lead had become a race to the top rather than a battle up a tough route, and to be honest she had a point last season. I remember recording a podcast interview with her in a hotel in Xiamen in October of last year and after we turned the mics off we sat and talked for half an hour or so, despite my initial protestations that she should get some sleep before the finals the next day. She was more interested in chatting than resting for a competition she couldn't be bothered with, and seemed like she'd rather have been flying home the next day than competing.
The contrast this year is remarkable; she's motivated week in, week out, and said that if she's finding the boulders easy, she just views it as a different sort of challenge and focuses on doing them quickly. Whatever she did over the winter has worked and she is fired up in that very Janja way where she doesn't show it except for at the very moment of success, when the emotion comes out. The clean sweep of the Boulder season meant a lot more to her than she was willing to admit beforehand and I suspect she is hungrier than ever in Lead. Could a double clean sweep beckon? It seems ridiculous to say it but I for one wouldn't bet my mortgage against it.
The story on the men's side couldn't be more different or unpredictable. For the second season running nobody in the men's events managed to win 2 Boulder World Cups in a single year and the Lead is likely to be equally competitive. One interesting aspect of the Lead World Cups over the past 2 seasons, and about the only discernible pattern that's emerged from them, is that experience counts for a lot. Jakob Schubert (AUT), 7 years on from his mind blowing 2011 season when he won the first 7 events in a 9 World Cup calendar, won the overall title in 2018 and Romain Desgranges (FRA) won in 2017 aged 35. Jakob won a Boulder World Cup earlier this year and when I watched him in the Austrian National Championships in the middle of June he looked immense. He is such a fierce competitor and has vast experience of figuring out how to win that he's my bet for the overall title again, but then again he might not even make the season podium, such is the level of competition.
Providing the stiffest of challenges to Jakob will be Adam Ondra (CZE), firmly back in competition mode as he prepares for the Olympics in Tokyo next summer. When Adam comes to an event the whole energy of the weekend is different and the fans flock to him in a way they don't to anyone else. After the conclusion of the Vail World Cup final a few weeks back, I happened to walk out into the crowd next to Adam and Alex Megos (GER). Adam was instantly mobbed, while Alex was asked for a few signatures and photos but was more or less left alone as he headed into Vail village for dinner. An hour or so later I ended up sitting on the grass chatting to Adam and his management/video team (even the first half of this sentence tells you a lot about his position in climbing) and I said that whilst it must be a pain to get so much attention, at least he can escape it back in the "real" world. Not a bit of it apparently; he gets recognised at petrol stations, airports and just about anywhere else you can think of. He inhabits a different space to all other competitors and it will be interesting to see whether that affects him as the scrutiny ratchets up ahead of Tokyo 2020.
Elsewhere in the men's field Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) has really emerged as a serious contender. He's picking up wins regularly now and has been second in the overall standings for the last 2 Lead seasons. I think he'll win a World Cup this year and beyond that I have no idea until we've seen him in action on a Lead wall. The same goes for Domen Skofic (SLO), overall winner in the 2016 season, who won the final World Cup of 2018. Alex Megos, who picked up a maiden win in 2018, is also getting the hang of competitions and is surely too good not to win some silverware this year. This list could really go on and on but until we're a couple of events into the year, I think that making any predictions on the men's Lead season is nigh on impossible. It should be a great battle to watch and I'm excited to see who emerges from the Boulder season in the best Lead shape.
So the contrast between the men's and women's competitions couldn't be starker. On one hand we have a dominant climber and the enjoyment comes from seeing just how good she can be, and on the men's side we have a vast array of world-class climbers battling it out with an Olympics-shaped elephant in the room. Despite their vast success in Boulder, Team Japan do not (yet) have any standout Lead climbers. With so many strong boulderers (many of whom are pretty handy on a speed wall too) Japan could do with a few climbers putting their hand up in Lead too. Many of their athletes are capable but it remains to be seen which of them will be leading the Leading charge.
Sadly I'm missing Villars for family reasons and it will be strange to watch on from the sidelines having been to every World Cup bar one since the start of 2016. Mike Langley will be handling the broadcasting and I've no doubt will be as excellent and insightful as ever, probably even more so than usual without me jabbering over the top of him. I'll be at every event from Chamonix onwards and will be providing post-competition reports from all of them. Bring on the summer!