Sunday will be the 8th Ironman 70.3 World Championship, the final contest of what had been an exclusively U.S. hosted event. After 5 years on the flat-as-a-pool-table track at Clearwater which prompted tremendous griping about the inevitable drafting effect, Ironman officials got it right with the inaugural 2011 Henderson, Nevada course. Rugged hills on the bike reward true three-sport masters who welcome a similar challenge on the run. After this, the Ironman organization has opened up the rights to host the subsequent 70.3 World Championships for bids from the rest of the world.
The move to one month before the Ironman World Championship finale in October has attracted better fields, filled with talented individuals inclined to use the 70.3 World Championship as a final speedy middle distance tune-up for Kona. Both Craig Alexander (2011) and Leanda Cave (2012) have proved a Vegas-Kona double is a viable strategy.
This year, there is, in this flawed prognosticator’s opinion, a rare, clear favorite among the women in contrast to a wide-open collection of men who seem to have an equal shot at the top of the podium. Listed in order from top favorite to long shot are the best Ironman 70.3 men with a chance to win. Triathlon is a blessedly unpredictable sport, so if your favorite is left off this list and storms to the podium, I will happily salute your hero.
Craig Alexander, 40, (AUS)
The guy is 40, fer cryin’ out loud! And he is not having his best year either! How doltish can this pick be? And he was out of the top 10 at Ironman Hawaii last year! OK doubters, here’s why he should be on the top of this list: Unknown to many, Alexander suffered an injury lifting weights two weeks before Kona last year and quietly endured a 12th place finish without a whisper of an excuse. True he is 40, but he contended at Ironman Melbourne until the final miles and took a close 3rd. He also cut back on his races and didn’t pick the toughest fields. But he dominated Ironman 70.3s at Honu, Kansas and Lake Stevens with silky smoothness. Last year against a tough field at Las Vegas he was just 1:01 behind a brilliant day by Sebastian Kienle and ahead of everyone else. Crowie has won this race twice – once at Clearwater (2006) and once in Las Vegas (2011).
Andy Potts, 36, (USA)
Potts won this race in 2007 and has amassed one of the winningest resumes at the 70.3 distance with eerie regularity. This year he won Eagleman 70.3, closing with a 1:13:30 run. He won California 70.3 at Oceanside against a stacked field. He won Ironman Lake Placid by a mile and took apart the Timberman 70.3 field with clinical precision. The only blemish seems to be a 3rd place finish at Ironman 70.3 St. George where he finished 2nd American behind an inspired Kevin Collington. In years past, Potts tended to over-race, but this year he cut back on his schedule -- presumably to save his best for the two big races at the end of the year.
Ritchie Nicholls, 26, (GBR)
This 26-year-old Scotsman has blossomed under the guidance of master coach Brett Sutton and the Team TBB squad. Nicholls took 2nd at Hagesund 70.3 and won on super tough tracks at Ironman 70.3 UK and Alpe d’Huez. This man will love the hills of Las Vegas. But his most impressive outing was his victory over a talent-rich field at the European 70.3 Championship at Wiesbaden where he spanked 2012 Ironman 70.3 World Champion Sebastian Kienle and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Jan Frodeno, polishing off his day with a 1:08:53 run.
Bevan Docherty, 36, (NZL)
The 2004 ITU World Champion and Olympic silver medalist and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist proved last year that his transition to long course was on target with a 3rd place at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. This year he underlined his readiness for long course with a race-record win at Ironman New Zealand and he had a consistent presence on half Ironman and 70.3 3 podiums with a 2nd places at Panama 70.3 and Auckland 70.3 and a 3rd at Rev3 Quassy. Docherty is clutch on the big days and wants another World Championship podium prep before tackling Kona for the first time.
Sebastian Kienle, 29, (GER)
Why drop the man all the way to 5th choice this year? Kienle has two sub-8 hour Iron-distance finishes at Roth, a 2nd at Ironman Frankfurt and Ironman 70.3 Europe, a 4:14:07 bike split at the Ironman distance, a win at this race last year and a 4th place finish in his Kona debut last October despite a flat. After all, this is a race built for überbikers like Kienle. It’s because Kienle is having an off year by his own high standards: He took 6th at Wiesbaden 70.3 and 10th at Ironman Frankfurt, that’s why. But he will back.
Joe Gambles, 31, (AUS)
Gambles finished 5th, 4th and 5th at the 2009, 2010, and 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. And after every one of those races you probably thought he had at least a World Championship podium in him. He proved that with silver medal at the 2011 UTU long distance World Championship and the next two years he won 6 half Ironman or 70.3 regular season titles. The guy can bike and has a 1:10 run for the 70.3 distance in him.
Greg Bennett, 41, (USA)
Bennett, who went undefeated and earned $500,000 on the Life Time Fitness circuit a few years ago, won the $151,500 top prize two years ago at Hy-Vee and took 3rd at that Iowa big-dollar race this year, appears to laugh at the concept of growing old in triathlon. This year he won Raleigh 70.3, took 2nd to Joe Gambles at Boulder 70.3, was 4th at Eagleman 70.3 and finished 3rd for the second year in a row at Hy-Vee. Greg Bennett is still money at 41.
Terenzo Bozzone, 28, (NZL)
Arguably Bozzone’s greatest race remains his still-standing record, field-destroying victory at Wildflower long course in 2006. His Ironman 70.3 World Championship victory at Clearwater in 2007 backed that up nicely. Since then he has gone on winning streaks at the Ironman 70.3 distance while struggling at the full Ironman distance. This year he looks to be in fine middle-distance form with victories at Mt. Tremblant 70.3 and Ironman 70.3 Florida, runner-up finishes at the ITU Long Distance World Championship and Tauranga Half, and 3rd at Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3.
Jan Frodeno, 32, (GER)
Famous for his stirring finish line sprint to win gold at the Beijing Olympics, Frodeno has taken well to middle distance triathlon as witnessed by his 2nd at the European Ironman 70.3 Championship at Wiesbaden, 40 seconds behind Ritchie Nicholls. Frodeno still has his speed, too, seen in his non-drafting win at St. Anthony’s.
Brent McMahon, 32, (CAN)
Canadian Olympian has wholeheartedly embraced the 70.3 world this year. Took runner-up finishes at Mt. Tremblant and Boise 70.3s and won against a top field at Ironman 70.3 St. George.
Bart Aernouts, 29, (BEL)
This guy could be the dark horse on the podium at Vegas. Won South Africa and St. Polten 70.3s, took 2nd at Mallorca 70.3 and Ironman Nice and was a strong 4th at Abu Dhabi International.
Timothy O’Donnell, 32, (USA)
His big 2013 breakthrough came with an 8:01 race record win at Ironman Brazil, but was a little behind his 2011- 2012 record at the 70.3s. In 2012 he won San Juan 70.3, took 2nd at Lake Stevens and 4th at Ironman 70.3 Worlds. This year he took 3rd at Ironman 70.3 San Juan and 10th at Oceanside 70.3. Has more in the tank.
Luke Bell, 34, (AUS)
Bell has a record 20-plus wins at the half Ironman/70.3 distance and this year he finally broke through with two wins at the Ironman distance, including a clutch performance at IM Mt. Tremblant. Still has the speed to mix it up at the front, witnessed by his 2nd at Geelong 70.3.
Ivan Vasiliev, 28, (RUS)
A man who still has enough top speed to finish 3rd at WTS Madrid and 4th at WTS Yokohama and 7th at non-drafting Hy-Vee, and then go off in his spare time and finish 4th against a top field at Ironman 70.3 St. George will be dangerous at Las Vegas. Ivan Vasiliev is just such a man.
Ivan Raña, 34, (ESP)
Ivan Raña only seems like he should be retired because he won the ITU World Championship at Cancun in 2002 and finished 5th at the 2008 Olympics. But he is now just 34 years old and entering what seems to be the prime of a long course triathlon career. Late last year he was 2nd at Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens, 1st at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote and won Ironman Cozumel. He still has speed to go with his improved endurance as witnessed by his 8th place finish at the WTS Grand Final in Auckland. But his performances in 2013 have been few and far between. Dangerous if he's on.
Kevin Collington, 28, (USA)
Collington came to middle distance prominence this year with his second place overall and victory at the U.S. Ironman 70.3 championship at Ironman 70.3 St. George. He backed that up with 2nd at Florida 70.3 and an impressive 5th at Hy-Vee.
Brad Kahlefeldt, 34, (AUS)
This three-time ITU World Championship medalist, 2002 U23 World champion, winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Games triathlon and 2nd place photo finisher at the 2009 Hy-Vee World Cup has made a promising transition to the 70.3 distance. This year he won Busselton 70.3 and placed 3rd at Hagesund 70.3.
Tim Don, 35, (GBR)
Tim Don has very high highs, as demonstrated by his win at the 2006 ITU World Championship in Lausanne and his $200,000 victory at the 2010 Hy-Vee World Cup and his win at the Hamburg round of the ITU World Championship Series that same year. Now he has taken on the 70.3 distance and won Calgary 70.3 and took 3rd at Ironman 70.3 South Africa. One of the best runners in the sport, his 1500 meter PR is 3:46.