The two French stops on the Alpine tour of the IFSC Lead World Cups are always a highlight of the competition calendar. This year, being the last two events before the Tokyo 2020 Games, the events provided a marker of the current form of some Olympians and shone a light on the underdogs who consistently nip at the heels of the top players, but rarely get a chance to break on through.
Chamonix brought its typical moody weather, scenic backdrop and long, meandering routes above an enthusiastic crowd. Sadly there were a few hiccups in gauging the difficulty of the women's route, with nine tops in the semi-final round causing Nolwenn Arc (FRA) to be denied a finals place on countback despite completing the route. Laura Rogora (ITA) made her last appearance at an IFSC event before she jets off to Tokyo, and proved that she is on good form by achieving the only top in finals. Natalia Grossman (USA) continued her meteoric rise and claimed a silver medal, her sixth medal of the season, finishing just a few moves ahead of young sixteen-year-old up-and-comer Aleksandra Totkova (BUL) in third (her first senior IFSC World Cup medal). Totkova's style is punchy and dynamic; her high-risk approach is akin to that of Janja Garnbret (SLO) and is exciting to watch.
|15||Sabina van Essen||NED||49+|
|20||Eva Maria Hammelmüller||AUT||41|
In the men's final, a tough route saw low highpoints. Seasoned favourite Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) and long-time competitor Martin Stranik (CZE) matched a score of 32, which was ultimately surpassed by an on-form Sean Bailey (USA), fresh from his first Lead World Cup win in Villars. This was Sean's third win in the season so far, with one Gold in Boulder and two in Lead. Alberto Ginés López (ESP) was the sole male Olympian competing, finishing 14th.
|14||Alberto Ginés López||ESP||39+|
|17||Mikel Asier Linacisoro Molina||ESP||38+|
Less than one week later, the athletes and their contingents had made their way to Briançon, where numbers were slightly fewer. Alberto Ginés López was the last Tokyo-qualified man standing once again, while no female Tokyo-qualified athletes chose to compete.
As ever, the risk of rainstorms and thunder and lightning threatened to end play, but thankfully only a brief but heavy downpour of rain occurred during the final. It's a serious risk at this venue, where an organiser was struck by lightning in 2015 and finals were cancelled. Thankfully the event has since moved to a less risky location in Briançon. Nonetheless, rain (and double rainbows) coloured the finals. The crowd were masked and hooded, showing enthusiasm despite the conditions.
In the men's final, a tricky-to-read route on dual-tex tube-like volumes unsettled some athletes. Top qualifier on the qualification day Luka Potocar (SLO) fell low in the roof after misreading a technical feet-first section. An awkward perched move on the aréte of a triangular volume caused issues for multiple athletes, including Sascha Lehmann (SUI) and Fedir Samoilov (UKR), while Sean Bailey (USA) and Martin Stranik pushed their way into a stem-like rest, before falling on the way out of it. Dmitrii Fakirianov (RUS) set an impressive highpoint of 39+ to earn his first IFSC World Cup medal since his breakout year in 2016. Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) - arguably the favourite in this event - pushed further to 42+ to take the win, his first since Kranj 2018.
|7||Alberto Ginés López||ESP||37||27+|
Five women topped their semi-final route (effectively 6, but Totkova timed out just before the top), creating a similar situation to Chamonix's semi-final. The women's final route appeared basic from the outset, but fortunately proved more complex as athletes started their runs. An unnerving bottom section on slopey holds caused some hesitation, including the young and gutsy Aleksandra Totkova (BUL), who seemed to rush a few moves low down and expend more energy, before falling in the middle of the roof.
Young Czech star Eliska Adamovska, who had qualified for her first final, stunned spectators by confidently reaching the headwall and setting a highpoint. As more experienced athletes dropped below her - Lucka Rakovec (SLO), Ashima Shiraishi (USA) and Vita Lukan (SLO) - her performance became all the more impressive. Natalia Grossman (USA) looked set to earn her first Lead gold, climbing smoothly through the cruxes and reaching the headwall. But as she threw for a crimp and missed, it was clear that Adamovska had secured her first win in her first final. A shock result, maybe, but Adamovska's potential was demonstrated at the IFSC European Championships in Moscow, where she placed 3rd in Combined and 2nd in Lead. Also of note was Lukan's 3rd place: depsite being a regular finalist - four times in Briançon alone - Lukan had never medalled in an IFSC World Cup.
|13||Eva Maria Hammelmüller||AUT||30|
The next event on the calendar is the biggest of them all, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. If the 2021 IFSC season so far has shown us anything, it's that there's an exciting pool of talent simmering just below the established Olympic greats. There are plenty of unknowns (what shape are the South Koreans in? The Chinese? The Candians?) ahead of Tokyo, but also plenty to look forward to. Once the Games are over and a new chapter in Sport Climbing history is written, the remainder of the IFSC circuit might attract a fuller range of athletes (COVID-permitting) and also a new audience.
In just over two weeks' time, I'll (hopefully) be reporting from Tokyo...