For the French men’s team last season was about learning how to move on with life after Fourcade. As it turns out the season was more than a little bumpy. Early in the season every week the question was “where are the French men?” “Who is going to step in and lead after Fourcade?” The narrative of last season was one of a struggle for the French men. And it wasn’t always wrong.
This was a French program that had grown used to being on top. Over the last 20 seasons there had been consistent top notch high level French biathletes vying for the crystal globe and that simply did not happen in the 2020-2021 season. This year though is a completely different story. The French men have dominated early season storylines and as we break for the holidays continue to lead the pack. It feels like an enormous reversal, a revolution if you will. But was last season really as bad as it was made out to be? And is this season really that much better?
I had actually forgotten, but the French did get their first podium of the season in the second weekend in Kontiolahti when Fabien Claude got 2nd in Pursuit. That was part of a very brief surge for Claude before he disappeared from the main stage for the rest of the season. Shortly after in the third weekend QFM had a win and a 2nd while Jacquelin grabbed two 2nd place finishes in the two weeks in Hochfilzen. But while this all sounds great during that same stretch JT Bø and Sturla Holm Lægreid were taking control and laying the groundwork for the rest of the season which was absolutely defined by Norwegian dominance.
The 2020-2021 season was not completely empty of success for the French men. QFM did have 8 top 5’s in the last 5 weeks of the season including two victories. He ended up 3rd in the overall standings but was irrelevant in the overall discussion. Jacquelin had only 3 more podium finishes after his good stretch in Hochfilzen. Simon Desthieux even had 2 late wins and 2 other podiums. His very late surge at the very tail end of the year boosted him up to 9th overall on the last day of the season.
From a rankings perspective at the end of the season things weren’t as bad as the narrative of the season made it out to be. QFM did finish in 3rd position which is exactly the same position in 2020-2021 as he attained in ’18-’19 and ’19-’20. However in 2019-2020 he was within 60-80 points of the lead the entire season whereas last year he was around 200 points back for much of the season. Jacquelin who had shown promise with a 5th place overall finish in ’19-’20 slipped just a little back to 7th. Desthieux, as mentioned earlier, was irrelevant until the last month of the season after finishing 6th the season before.
While for most nations those would be excellent seasons the French have higher aspirations. The story and narrative of the French season became not one of success but one of struggling to find their footing after the retirement of Fourcade. For most of the season the highest ranking Frenchmen were QFM and Jacquelin in about 6-7th place. As mentioned above that put them about 200+ points back of the leaders. Being that far back for so much of the season left QFM and Jacquelin nearly irrelevant to the conversation regarding the overall race and the crystal globe. And unlike 2018-2019 JT Bø wasn’t unbeatable which made the deficit *feel* that much worse. Meanwhile their rivals, the Norwegians, spent the majority of the season with 4 of the top 5 in the overall standings between JT Bø, Lægreid, Johannes Dale, and Tarjei Bø. For a nation with a recent history of being on top of the standings after two decades of strong performances, including 11 Crystal Globes combined for Raphaël Poirée and the record setting Martin Fourcade, this was a definitive step back. It was also hard to accept completely ceding the spotlight to the Norwegians.
This season is decidedly different. This season the story is one of French dominance. The French are on the march and the Tricolour is waving. If you’re reading this then you are well aware that right now the French 1-2 of Emilien Jacquelin and Quinton Fillon Maillet are leading the pack in the men’s World Cup this season while the Norwegians are the ones who appear to have taken a step back. Through 4 weeks the French combined for 3 total victories, 3 2nd place finishes, and 3 3rds, to go along with 4 additional 4th&5th place finishes. That puts them on pace for between 8-9 finishes at each step on the podium as well as a total of 10-11 4th&5th place combined finishes. This is much more in line with the kind of success they experienced during the later years of the Fourcade era.
In all of 2020-2021 the combined French effort included 6 wins, 6 2nd place and 6 3rd place finishes. Their start this season put the French men on pace for an estimated 33-50% increase in number of finishes at each step of the podium. You can also see in the graph above that the start to this season puts them much more in line with the standards of the late Fourcade years than last season. I’m fairly certain every team would sign up for this in an instant. So what happened last season? And is it reasonable to expect the French men to keep up this pace?
What is interesting is if you actually look into the statistics there wasn’t the major regression last season that you might expect. Basically the statistics argue that last season wasn’t so much a regression. It appears to be more consistent with just a lack of Martin Fourcade combined with a lack of improvement particularly by QFM and Jacquelin. However Fabien Claude at 27 still might have some upside but his statistics showed no great leap last year either. I’m not sure we should expect too much improvement by Desthieux at this point in his career so his lack of improvement statistically is not to great a surprise.
The answer to that would be…I don’t know? Based on the statistics shown below there appears to be a decided improvement in ski speed for all 4 of the leading male French biathletes. This is apparent just with the eye test as well. Just watch the Mass Start from Annecy to watch Jacquelin pulverize the field. However across the board they are ALL shooting less accurately and slower. (One wonders in fact how much less accurate they would be if they were actually shooting at their career average speeds?!?) It’s actually fairly impressive how uniform these changes were.
If you dig into the individual races you’ll see that Jacquelin’s shooting average is really dragged down by two fairly disastrous shooting outings but the rest of his performances are actually better than his career average. Unfortunately for QFM, Desthieux, and Claude that just isn’t the case. They just aren’t shooting up to their normal levels.
It could be fairly thought that what we are seeing now is a small amount of luck and good fortune on the timing of when these missed shots occur vs those in the rest of the field. However it is clear that their off season ski training program paid dividends as they are all decidedly higher in the ski rankings. It also helps that many of the other fastest skiers have not been shooting well either. And the most beneficial thing of all for this crew is the relative flailing of the Norwegian squad (more on that later this week).
Then there is another thing that is very difficult to quantify, but it *feels* like the French are confident and capitalizing on opportunities this year. Particularly QFM has a mental edge this season I’m not sure was there last year. You can see it how he approaches the race and takes advantage of and presses his opponents in big moments. Jacquelin doesn’t necessarily have a high conversion rate when in the top 5 going to the last shoot, but he has given himself many more opportunities to reach the podium. On a deeper review he is only converting about 50% of his opportunities but he’s there time and again.
So what should we expect moving forward? I believe at the very least we will see Jacquelin and QFM remain near the top of the standings. I mentioned a little earlier that of the other top skiers none seem to be able to consistently shoot well enough. Long story short there is no other dominant male biathlete this year in the form of a JT Boe, a Fourcade, or even a Laegreid from last season. It is a long season and Samuelsson, Latypov, Christiansen, or even JT Boe or Laegreid could certain put it all together over the coming weeks and months. (Expect us to look at that in the next weeks before the restart). But when you look at how their competitors are faring so far there is no reason to believe Jacquelin and QFM won’t be challenging for the yellow jersey all season long and one of them very well may claim the Crystal Globe this March.