It's felt like a long wait for the Lead season to get underway but the big day finally arrived in Villars over the weekend. It's the 4th successive year that the IFSC has gone to Villars and in that time it's developed into a cracking event. The first year the small team of people organising it were stretched to breaking point and they clearly pulled it off by the skin of their teeth; we (the livestream team) ended up crashing at the main organiser's house because in the rush to get the event over the line, he forgot to book us any accommodation.
The crowd that first year was quite small and while the venue enjoys a fabulous view, I thought that the event was fine, but nothing special. For the football fans out there, it was what a friend of mine would describe as a "Nicky Butt" World Cup; gets the job done but it's nobody's favourite. Since that first year, Villars has just got better and better and I now really look forward to it. The organisation is excellent, the crowd has grown massively every year, and the location speaks for itself. I was sad to miss it this year but I was glad to avoid the 35 degree heat that the climbers "enjoyed" as the final part of the 2019 European heatwave swept through Switzerland.
There were a lot of storylines to emerge from Villars but after one event, I'm not going to read too deeply into anything; by the time Chamonix and Briançon are done, we'll have a real idea of where everyone is at. Still, it's fun to speculate. The first thing to say is that route setters undeniably got it wrong in the Villars finals, with an undercooked men's route and a stopper move on the women's route. That meant that the show wasn't great and we mainly had to rely on the qualifiers and semi finals to provide some insight. The route setters have, by some margin, the toughest job in climbing and with the last Lead World Cup having been nearly 9 months ago, they were somewhat blind as to what the current level is amongst the competitors, especially given how many climbers are now training all 3 disciplines. The route setting team in Villars was exceptionally strong, but they made some micro calculations and got them wrong. Such is life in a sport like ours.
The Brits performed well, with three climbers reaching semi-finals: Will Bosi, Molly Thompson-Smith and Shauna Coxsey. All eyes were on two-time Overall Boulder World Cup winner Shauna to see how she could convert her skills to Lead and Speed. We already knew she was capable in Lead, given her 6th place in Kranj in 2017, but in this pre-Olympic qualification year how far has she come in both Lead and Speed? Quite some way, it seems, since she set a new British women's speed record of 9.798 seconds - the first sub-10 record. This performance placed her 31st and ahead of some strong Combined contenders. Will Bosi also set a new British men's record of 7.072 seconds. Molly Thompson-Smith was looking to get back into her Lead swing after a difficult Boulder season due to a finger injury and finished in a respectable =13th, with Shauna not too far behind in 21st. Will finished 20th in Lead after an unfortunate foot slip, but will surely feel motivated to redeem himself in Chamonix next weekend, where he made finals and finished 5th in 2018.
Right, let's get the Janja bit out of the way. She crushed the qualifiers and then claimed the only top on the semi final despite dropping her chalk bag a metre up the route. In the final, she did what she could with the route she was given and still managed to find a way to win. It's unlikely to go down as a classic women's final, or one of her greatest moments, but it's easy to forget that winning ugly is still winning. She might perhaps be beaten once or twice this season but if she stays fit and motivated, she will have to have an off day and somebody else will have to have a once-in-a-lifetime performance if she's going to be denied a clean sweep of Lead victories. The paucity of English vocabulary, and the fact that I have to write/talk about her 15 times per year, mean that I have long since given up searching for adjectives to describe Janja. Just watch her and enjoy every second - you're not going to see anything like it again.
The biggest story for me on the women's side was Jessy Pilz missing finals. She had a brilliant Boulder season for someone relatively new to competing in the discipline, making 2 finals and picking up a bronze medal in Chongqing. By contrast, making finals is generally her bare minimum in Lead, and missing out in Villars was the first time she hasn't made the top 8 since Kranj 2017. I wonder whether training 3 disciplines is affecting her performance in Lead.
Just as an aside, the effect of 3 discipline training on performance in one discipline is going to be a recurring theme this season. In the Boulder season it seemed to have minimal effect - the cream still rose to the top despite many "boulderers" training all 3 disciplines - but I think in Lead it could change things around a bit more. It's pretty tough to start seriously training Speed without gaining some additional muscle mass and in Lead, that's going to affect climbers more than it will in Boulder. Furthermore, the additional power you can generate as a result of Speed training can come in handy for Boulder, but it generally isn't of much use in Lead. I wonder if Jessy (and several others like Stefano Ghisolfi) just had a rare bad day or if her result was symptomatic of a change in training. Bear in mind that climbers like Stefano and Jessy have trained hard for their whole lives to compete in Lead, and if they suddenly can't dedicate the same number of hours specifically to Lead training, you'd expect their results to suffer. You're effectively going from a full-time Lead climber to a part timer, and changing your body composition too. Having said all that, Jessie and Stefano will probably win next week in Chamonix and I'll get back in my box.
Another big story in the women's comp was the performance of Julia Chanourdie, who looks like a bona fide all rounder. She had a Boulder season that surely exceeded even her expectations, and she didn't skip a beat on her return to Lead. She's now a regular finalist in 2 disciplines, and not many climbers can say that. She'll be a serious force for the rest of the season and, barring a miracle, at the Olympics too.
An even bigger story was Chaehyun Seo, the 15 year old Korean competing in her first World Cup who made the final. She ended up second on count back to her staggering semi final performance, but given the nature of the route in the final that doesn't mean quite as much as it might have on a different route. Could Janja have some serious competition from the most unexpected of sources? It's a bit early to say but she certainly added to the excitement and intrigue of the event. I'd be seriously impressed if anyone said they were keeping much of an eye on her before Villars but she'll have some attention in Chamonix, that's for sure.
Over on the men's side, Jakob Schubert (complete with his new garish harness and chalk bag) was the big casualty in the semi finals. He misread a couple of sequences and fell far short of where he needed to to make finals. I still think he's the climber to beat this year but if Chamonix doesn't go his way, he might already be playing catch up to his rivals.
One of those rivals is clearly going to be Alex Megos, who's turning into an excellent competitor. He didn't seem to be taking the whole thing too seriously at times last season, but this year he is not competing to make up the numbers. Just watch his reaction when he topped the final route if you had any doubts about his desire to win. However, heel hooks remain a bit of a weak spot for Alex and that almost cost him a spot in the finals when he should have heel hooked in the semis and decided instead to use an alternative, less efficient, method. You'd have thought that after Adam Ondra schooled half the Japanese climbing team in hand jamming in Meiringen earlier this year, climbers would have realised that they can't afford to have any gaping holes in their technical skillset. On that note, Adam Ondra didn't make it to Villars due to a wrist injury, but from what we understand it's nothing too serious and he'll be back soon, hopefully in Chamonix.
One man who was very much in Villars was Sascha Lehmann. The Swiss coaching team have believed for a while that he's the real deal but it always seemed that he didn't quite have what it took mentally to succeed. Knowing how to climb is very different from knowing how to win and we always knew he could do the former - now he can do both. He's immensely strong (even by World Cup standards), young, hungry and now (you'd imagine) confident. That first gold is always a big hurdle but he's over it now and I'm expecting him to pick up some more silverware this season based on what I saw from Villars. The same goes for YuFei Pan, a genuine all rounder who's long been talked about as China's great climbing hope and who's now quietly racking up good result after good result.
Surprisingly given that they had 4 men and 3 women in the final, Team Japan only picked up one medal with Ai Mori collecting bronze in the women's final. I said last week in my season preview that Japan don't have any standout lead climbers but it would appear that, like in Boulder, they have an embarrassment of riches and are now just waiting for a couple of climbers to really put their hands up. Tomoa Narasaki looks increasingly like their leading man and Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka are still leading the way on the other side of the wall, albeit with a huge bunch of youngsters biting at their heels. Just as an amusing aside, I was training at a gym last week in one of the railway arches in eastern Innsbruck and who should walk past the open shutter door but Tomoa and Meichi Narasaki. I wouldn't want to claim that I was responsible for them both making finals, but perhaps they took one look at me making very light weights look very heavy and found some extra motivation for their final block of pre-season training. Either way, what a duo they are. Nobody else in the gym was a climbing fan so had no idea who they were as they politely shook everyone's sweaty hands, but I assured my fellow gym goers that the surname Narasaki is likely to be better known outside the climbing world after Tokyo 2020.
On the broadcasting front, I enjoyed sitting and watching a World Cup without the stress of being live on air, but only for the novelty factor - I'm fired up to be back amongst it next weekend in Chamonix. I thought Mike Langley was excellent as ever, and Kyra Condie, Will Bosi and Hannah Schubert was a superb lineup of guests, each providing their own style and bags of insight.
Up next is one of the truly great World Cups, Chamonix. Provided the weather holds, the Place du Mont Blanc will be packed as it is every year, and Mont Blanc will disappear into the darkness behind the wall as the finals progress. If it hammers down, the good folk of Chamonix will still turn up, cheer and support anyway, we'll just lose the romantic Mont Blanc bit of my visual image. It's one of the highlights of the IFSC calendar and I for one can't wait for it.
|21||Shauna Coxsey||GBR||Qual' 26 32.|
|74||Joanna Neame||GBR||Qual' 14+ 71.|
|8||Reza Alipourshenazandifar||IRI||6.075||false start|
|16||Sergey Rukin||RUS||false start|
|36||William Bosi||GBR||Qual' 7.072|
|19||Aries Susanti Rahayu||INA|
|32||Shauna Coxsey||GBR||Qual' 9.798|
|61||Molly Thompson-Smith||GBR||Qual' 12.660|