As the 2019-2020 season came to an end Martin Fourcade made the decision to retire and with him seemingly the last challenger to an era of total dominance by Johannes Thingnes Bø faded away. It was the dawn of an era of one-man rule for who else was there left to keep JT Bø from steamrolling the competition?
As the curtain lifted on the 2020-2021 season King Bø was widely predicted, including by yours truly, to be the heavy favorite in every race he strapped on his skis for. Some kid named Sturla Holm Lægreid won the first race of the season. No worries though as strongman Bø came right back to win the 2nd race of the season.
Then something wild happened…Bø didn’t win another race until January 8th, 2021 in Oberhoff, which was the 5th weekend of competition for season. Meanwhile Lægreid won twice more and fellow youngsters Sebastien Samuelsson and Johannes Dale each won as well. Samuelsson even stared down Bø in the final lap of a 4×7.5km Relay and won.
What’s been one of if not the most important narrative of the men’s circuit thus far in the 2020-2021 season bas been the emergence of a Sturla Holm Lægreid as legitimate contender for the throne coming completely out of the blue. Fresh faces will always garner more attention than more established names. It’s also been an exciting new story to tell and has run totally contrary to expectations. Also it can’t be emphasized enough but Lægreid also came from pretty much nowhere and here is challenging Big Bad Bø. The other half of that story became “Why isn’t JT Bø dominating?” That answer is multifaceted and has changed a bit from the beginning of the season until today.
However, JT Bø has held a solid lead in the race for the overall crystal globe throughout the season and that’s the angle I want to examine today. He was predicted to win the overall Crystal Globe, and with seven more races left he’s in position to do so even without winning either as much as he was expected to or even as much as he did last year. So how did he build and maintain that lead even as the story is he’s not dominant? Well, he’s just stubbornly, persistently, and consistently finishing in the points. It’s almost boring how consistent he’s seemed to be.
It was while watching Bø rack up a few more top 5’s at the World Championships I figured out why this looked so familiar. It’s because its exactly what I’ve been watching Peter Sagan do in the points competitions in grand tours for most of the last decade.
For those of you not familiar with the cycling scene Peter Sagan has been one of cycling’s superstars during the 2010’s. He’s charismatic off the bike but that’s equally matched by his skill and panache on the bike. Since he claimed his place amongst cycling’s elite, he’s won 3 World Championships which is easily the most during that time. He has also won a handful of Monuments which are cycling’s most prestigious one day races making him one of the most decorated and well-known riders of the generation.
The UCI cycling calendar and rankings can be a bit wonky so for the purposes of this comparison we are going to stick to the Grand Tour races (3-week long races), and in particular the grand dame the Tour de France. As the marquee race on the cycling calendar this is the only one that is sure to draw more widespread attention, and not coincidentally the race where most frequently the biggest names in the sport race for glory. It’s the best opportunity to make a name for yourself and to earn those contracts!
Breaking it down further, cycling is a bit like biathlon in that there are different categories of racing that are classified during grand tour events such as the Tour. The overall category is the one that gets the most of the attention and where you’ll see the biggest of names like Bernard Hinault, Eddie Merckx, Greg Lemond, Chris Froome, and yes Lance Armstrong. You also have the “Points” competition and the “Climbing” race. Points are awarded for sprints usually at the end of long flat or “bumpy” (read not mountainous) stages and occasionally in the middle of a stage as well.
Sagan doesn’t have the build to be a mountain climber but he does have skills to for explosive output either in sprints or longer “bumpy” stages that aren’t quite mountainous but not flat either. It’s makes him a unique and powerful forces to be able to challenge the sprinters and the “punchers”. focuses on the Points competition, which in the Tour de France is known as the Green Jersey race. Sagan has won the Green Jersey competition 7 times since 2012. The only time he didn’t he was disqualified (and later cleared of any misconduct). In other words, he’s been absolutely dominant.
Now this is where the comparison to JT Bø begins. Below you’ll find a list chart making each season Sagan won the Green Jersey and how many stages he won vs. his top competition. Quick note that I only compiled data on cyclists who completed the tour as those who drop out are removed from the final competition.
As you can see only in 2012 and 2018 did he lead the competition in stage victories and in 2012 that was a tie with Cavendish and Griepel. The casual observer watching especially the 2013, 2014, or 2015 races would have expected Kittel or Griepel to win the Green Jersey. However, when you look at top 5 finishes you get the following data. I’ve expanded out to include a few more competitors. I’ve highlighted the rider who had the 2nd most top 5 finishes in red for ease of identification.
It becomes even more clear when you look at top 10 finishes.
I wasn’t able to locate the data but if you were to expand this further to include intermediate sprint points, I would bet heaping sums of money it would look very similar to the charts above. Sagan consistently pokes his nose into the competition so that even though he doesn’t always come away with the W he is always gaining points. Also he’s able to be competitive both in flat sprints and the bumpier courses so he’s got more opportunities for points. The end results is Peter Sagan now has more Green Jerseys than anybody else in history.
So how does that compare to our boy JT Bø?. Well lets look at the results for this year. First we’ll look at total wins.
Once again, elite athlete who you might expect to dominate really isn’t. He’s got the 2nd most wins but that’s a lot of wins scattered around. But once we expand it out we see the full picture:
Most podiums, most top 5’s and most 10’s with 19 out of a total of 19 individual races. As you can see clearly nobody else can do that or has been able to do that race after race after ace.So where does that leave us? By this time last season JT Bø had already racked up 7 wins compared to his 4 this year. And that’s with him missing two entire weekends of competition for the birth of his son. He also had 3 podium finishes as well. It was hard for him to have too many more podium wins because he seemed to win everything he showed up for.
There are still 3 more weekends of competition left and plenty of time for Bø to rack up the victories. We may end up sitting here at the end of the season looking back at how he cemented his status as King of Biathlon over the last month of racing. However, as Peter Sagan has proven time and again, the crown from a points competition doesn’t always go to the guy who ends up on the top of the podium the most times (although that can certainly help!). Sometimes it just takes brutal, crushing, and sometimes boring, consistency.