IFSC commentator Charlie Boscoe reports on the 2019 IFSC Lead World Cup in Briançon...
The third IFSC Lead World Cup in as many weeks took us down to Briançon, the sleepy capital of the southern Alps. The town will be familiar to most mountain people because it's surrounded by a seemingly endless array of climbs and ski tours. La Grave, the granite slabs of Ailefroide and the ice climbing mecca Freissinières are all less than 45 minutes away and the high peaks of the Écrins are on the doorstep. The road biking is apparently pretty good too but my one time trying that sport was plenty for me. Basically, it's a great place for lovers of the outdoors, and everyone involved with the IFSC seems to enjoy visiting.
Janja Garnbret (SLO) came into the weekend in the unfamiliar position of needing to bounce back from a bad result - she's normally under pressure because she's got some record or other to break. In the semis she narrowly missed the top and when I interviewed her live at the end of our broadcast, she looked thoroughly fed up and didn't give me much to work with, which is most unlike her. After the Boulder season she delivered, I think she (and everyone else, me included) assumed she'd win the Lead title at a canter but it's not proving to be the case at all. In the Briançon final she topped the route but it wasn't enough for the win and she still doesn't look fully Lead fit anyway. Perhaps going from dominating a Boulder season to dominating a Lead season is beyond even Janja, although I should say that if it wasn't for Chaehyun Seo, she'd be doing just that.
Chaehyun Seo has, without a shadow of doubt, been the story of the 2019 Lead season and I'm not sure anybody saw her coming. I hear that there are plenty of experts on the internet but even they, armed with hindsight, are not claiming to have predicted her rise, so it really must be a surprise. If anyone called this in advance, please send me a screen grab of your prediction with a time stamp from any date before Villars, and I will happily accept that I should have seen her coming. As it is, I'm as dumbfounded as everyone else and happily enjoying the seeming randomness of her rise to stardom. She topped the semi final route, which nobody else could, and then matched Janja's achievement of topping the final route, winning on count back to the semi. To be honest, she looked better on the final route than Janja so I suspect that if there had been another half a dozen moves, she'd have done them and Janja wouldn't, so Seo thoroughly deserved her win.
We were denied the chance to see World Champion Jessy Pilz (AUT) in action as she returned to Innsbruck to continue her preparations for the World Championships and decided to miss Briançon. The World Championships is a fabulous festival of climbing, but it is slightly disappointing to see climbers missing World Cups to prepare for it. I'm no expert on high level athletic training, but I can't help thinking that if I was trying to prepare for a competition, I'd try to compete as much as possible ahead of it. No doubt there's a solid physiological basis for Jessy's opting for more training, but I find it hard to believe that another few sessions at the wall are worth more than the psychological gain she'd get from a good performance in Briançon. To be honest, I'm biased because I want to see the best climbers battling it out every week so perhaps I should leave the coaching to the coaches.
Natsuki Tanii (JPN) continues to impress but is perhaps lacking the raw power for big moves like the last one on the women's final route. She won the double of Lead and Boulder in the Moscow Youth World Championships last year but still looks like a climber with plenty of "go" and not quite enough "oomph" right now. That said, she could easily bag a World Cup win this season if the routes suited her.
Elsewhere in the women's final it was good to see Mia Krampl (SLO) and Vita Lukan (SLO) reminding us that Slovenia has an embarrassment of riches beyond Janja. God help the Slovenian selectors who have to choose who will (presumably) join Janja in the Olympics next year. Ashima (USA) looked good too and feels tantalisingly close to a big result.
Shauna Coxsey didn't come to Briançon but Molly Thompson Smith scored another solid result, finishing 16th, while Emily Phillips was 51st, Jo Neame 59th and Rhoslyn Frugtniet 66th.
The men's event was as competitive as ever but it's a shame that Adam Ondra (CZE) didn't compete - he's the best climber the World has ever seen and he's won the only Lead World Cup he's entered this year, so a World Cup without him has a different feel to the ones where he competes.
In Adam's absence the door was open for someone to get a major result but most of the big names could barely find the handle to the door, let alone walk through it. Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) suddenly looks lost on a lead wall after looking so strong last year, and Alex Megos (GER) and Villars winner Sascha Lehmann (SUI) both made major mistakes in the semi miles short of where they needed to be to for a spot in the finals. When I chatted to the route setters after the semi final they were tearing their hair out because the climbers seem to be completely overthinking the routes and trying to find trick moves where there aren't any. With so many climbers gunning for an Olympic slot and training all 3 disciplines it seems that some lead climbers have lost the knack of route reading and are no longer focusing on executing basic moves. The section where Alex, Sascha and Stefano fell was bouldery but not particularly hard and the route setters reckon they'd been able to do it with no feet - the professionals should have cruised it. Thinking is an underrated skill (in climbing and life) but there seems to be a little too much of it going on amongst some male lead climbers right now. "If the move looks like a simple one, it probably is," would appear to be the lesson from the season so far.
As a result of all this overthinking we ended up with a final which nobody predicted. There was a huge opportunity there for all 8 finalists and it was the 3 Japanese climbers who ended up seizing it.
Marcello Bombardi (ITA) fought hard but doesn't yet look on World Cup winning form and ended up 8th. Domen Skofic (SLO) looked in good shape as he headed up the route but a slip from a poorly placed heel hook cost us the opportunity to see what he could really do. Sean Bailey (USA) looked great in the semis but didn't really deliver in the final and ended up 6th. As the female climbers came out after the men's final I could see from our commentary box Sean laughing and joking with some of his fellow Americans, and I can't help feeling that what he's really missing is a fierce urge to win. He loves climbing but I'm not sure he's got that brutality that true winners have; just watch his reaction versus Janja's to their respective results this week. I did a podcast interview with Steve Black (rugby star Jonny Wilkinson's mentor) a few months ago and when I asked him what separated Jonny from everyone else, he replied, "desire" without a second's hesitation. Nobody wins without first being desperate to win, no matter how friendly they might seem from the outside.
Just to continue this mini rant, I was being interviewed myself for a climbing podcast and the interviewer asked me what I felt was "missing" from climbing right now and I said that it was the universal desire to win. Joint observation of routes and platitude-filled social media posts are fine, but I sometimes feel that we cling on to climbing's inclusivity and friendliness, forgetting that it's now a professional sport where winning is ultimately the goal. I can't imagine the Tom Bradys, Roger Federers and Tiger Woods of this World happily patting their rivals on the back for claiming a big win - they'd be gracious in defeat but thoroughly pissed off and focused solely on how to make amends next time. A friend of mine has been involved in Formula 1 and tells me that the paddock is a savage and unrelenting place where everyone is civil, but focused solely on winning. I'm sure the same is true in all high level sports, and it feels like climbing has some way to go on that front. We might not all like the brutality of win-at-all-costs sport, but if we're going to be a professional sport, that's the reality of it; no consistently popular and successful sport is anything other than competitive and ruthless at its core.
Anyway, I digress. Sean McColl (CAN) was 5th and seemed almost overly pumped up judging by his reaction when he came down from the wall. As you'll know from my rant above I'm all for competitiveness but when Sean came down from the wall and screamed repeatedly, it was slightly strange and seemed out of place given that he hadn't topped the route or clearly delivered a winning performance. Still, he absolutely loves the big stage and was perhaps just shedding some excess adrenaline.
Will Bosi (GBR) ended up 4th but I think he could have done so much better had he executed the foot swap he was attempting when he fell. He has the horsepower to win these things and I think he's beginning to see himself as a genuine contender, which is the first step to becoming one. Elsewhere for Team GB, Jim Pope was 35th and Dave Barrans 60th.
The podium was all Japanese, with Shuta Tanaka 3rd, Hiroto Shimizu 2nd and Hidemasa Nishida in 1st. None had been on a World Cup podium before so it was a frankly staggering result that went to demonstrate just what amazing depth there is in the Japanese team. If you think the Slovenian Olympic selectors have some hard decisions to make, just consider the poor person in Tokyo who's got to select 2 climbers per gender for a home Olympics.
Speaking of Tokyo, we're off there in a few weeks time for a World Championships which looks even more exciting than it did 2 weeks ago. Can Janja storm back and win the Lead, Boulder and Combined or will she be made to look average by her new (and unexpected) competition? Who on Earth will win the men's events? And who will be the first climbers to qualify for the Olympics?
It's going to be quite the show. See you there.
IFSC Climbing Worldcup (L) - Briançon (FRA) 2019