When is a sprint distance triathlon not a sprint?
The answer is the 11.5 kilometer bike leg and the 2.5 kilometer run up the dizzyingly steep course of the World Triathlon Series event in Kitzbühel, Austria that turned swift elite triathletes into staggering mountaineers gasping for breath to reach not a finish line but a daunting summit.
So when is Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee not a Superman?
Especially is he Superman when the 25-year-old Olympic champion raced to a reported one kilometer lead on this endlessly painful killer Alpine climb whose topography basically reversed the precipitous declivity of a downhill skiing piste.
When the race was done, Brownlee high-fived much of the crowd, offered a casual smile much unlike the death masks on the faces of his rivals, and walked across the finish in 55:24 with a 36 seconds margin of victory over the runner-up Mario Mola of Spain and just over a minute ahead of 3rd place finisher Sven Riederer of Switzerland. The win was his 14th career World Triathlon Series win and his second of the year after a victory at the San Diego WTS round. Brownlee has been out of action after suffering an ankle injury following his 28:32 10,000 meter run at a track meet at Stanford in April.
Even Brownlee, who was spared the agony of trying to out-duel his brother since Jonathan (who won the two World Triathlon Series events that Alistair did not race this year) did not start due to last minute illness, had to pause a moment to regain his breath before his winner’s interview with ITU commentator Barrie Shepley.
“That last k was absolute hell,” said Alistair. “Fortunately my brother was not here today or it would have been a lot harder if we were running together. .I just sort of got away on the bike and then it was all about holding my rhythm. Once I was riding there was nothing I could do. My stomach was an absolute wreck and I was sort of on that line the whole time and if I went too hard it hurt too much. Thankfully, that was enough.”
Brownlee added that he liked the punishment. “I was looking for something incredible,” he told ITU TV. “If any course is going to be my course, this is going to be my thing. The background of mountains and mountain running – it’s what I love doing.”
Mola, a man with the slight thin build of a Tour de France climber, far outraced his Spanish rival Javier Gomez this day. “The bike was very hard, but the run was even worse,” he said on ITU TV. “I am very happy with a silver medal – Alistair was too far out front today.”
Sven Riederer, a veteran ITU competitor who scored a bronze on the very steep bike course in the 2004 Athens OIympics, did not understate Kitzbühel’s difficulty. “It was an unbelievable course -- the hardest race ever,” he told ITU TV. “Coming into transition on the bike, the last k was horrible. You could not come in to transition out of your shoes it was so steep.” Still the mountains suited the Swiss veteran. “This is a perfect course for me,” he said.
Tired of the usual parade of large packs circling flat bike courses in formation and turning triathlons into 10k runs, the ITU decided to try something new in Kitzbühel. The July 6 races promised to be the toughest in ITU history. Less than half of the standard Olympic distance, this Kitzbühel sprint distance packed a marathon’s worth punch in little under an hour of climbing torture. While the nearby Hahnenkamm mountain hosts one of the toughest downhill ski runs in the world, its sister peak, the Kitzbühel Horn Mountain, posed a commensurately steep uphill challenge to triathletes. After a little spritz of 750 meters in water, triathletes on bikes tackled an ascent of 867 meters over 11.5 kilometers of mountain hairpins. That’s an average 13.6 percent grade with a maximum inclination of 22.3 percent near the top. In case you were wondering, that is slightly more than the legendary maximum incline of the 2004 Athens Olympic triathlon bike course that forced some Olympians to set a zig-zag path to make it to the top and actually left some simply falling over on the steep tarmac. After Kitzbuhel's Himalayan climb, equal to the roughest Tour de France mountain sections, triathletes face another 136 meter incline on a 2.5 kilometer run – an average grade of 5.4 percent topping out at an estimated 12 percent grade near the top -- enough to sap the remaining strength of everyone, including Superman Brownlee.
Pre-race speculation favored the smallest, lightest triathletes who most closely resembled the Tour de France climbing specialists. With the exception of Riederer, a tall but muscular man, that theory proved true.
On the swim, Richard Varga had his last hurrah of the day, exiting first in 9:26 with various margin on eventual contenders – 3 seconds on Henri Schoeman of South Africa and Vincent Luis of France, 5 seconds on Javier Gomez, 9 seconds on Brownlee, 11 seconds on Ben Kanute of the U.S., 22 seconds on Mola, 28 seconds on Riederer, 33 seconds on Ryan Sissons of New Zealand, 40 seconds on Jonathan Zipf of Germany and 50 seconds on Thomas Springer of Austria.
After coming out of the swim 8th, Brownlee hit the front pack on the short flat section around the village which quickly turned into a grueling 867 meter climb. Brownlee quickly went into the lead and halfway up the climb had virtually disappeared from the sight of his chasers as he negotiated an endless series of switchbacks at a brisk pace. Olympic silver medalist Javier Gomez, who leads the WTS series in points, started the bike trying to ride with Brownlee, but grudgingly faded to 12th as his legs lacked his usual power due to a bike crash the week before this event. Nearing the end of the 11.5 kilometer climb, Mola, Schoeman, Riederer, Springer and Sissons ground their way to the top of the chasers.
Mola began the day in third place in the World Triathlon Series standings. He came out of the swim 18th, but his impressive bike vaulted him to 2nd place and he held it to the finish. On the run, Spain’s Mola was the only man to cut Brownlee’s 46 seconds lead at T2 to 36 seconds at the finish. But very likely that shrinking margin was more due to Brownlee’s celebratory high-fiving the finish line crowd and a brief voluntary stop in the penalty box with 75 meters to go.
Riederer took the final spot on the podium, just 3 seconds ahead of the surging finish of the new South African star Henri Schoeman.
Even though Gomez had an off day, he still held on to the WTS series lead in points -- 2744 to 2699 for fellow Spaniard Mario Mola and 2422 for Portugal's Joao Silva. After two wins in two races, Alistair stands tied for 6th at 1600 points - equal to his brother Jonathan, who also has two wins in two WTS starts.
ITU World Triathlon Series Kitzbühel
July 6, 2013
S 750m / B 11.5 k / R 2.5 k
1. Alistair Brownlee (GBR) 55:24
2. Mario Mola (ESP) 56:00
3. Sven Riederer (SUI) 56:46
4. Henri Schoeman (RSA) 56:49
5. Ryan Sissons (NZL) 57:31
6. Richard Varga (SVK) 57:37
7. Thomas Springer (AUT) 57:39
8. Vincent Luis (FRA) 57:41
9. Ryan Bailie (AUS) 57:44
10. Jason Wilson (BAR) 58:00
14. Ben Kanute (USA) 58:46