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The Other Triathlon

Written by: Dan Empfield
Added: Mon Jun 30 2014

I don't remember the precise year he told me this, sometime in the 1990s. Then-Secretary General of the ITU, Mark Sisson, announced to me, "We will never have more than 11 draft legal races worldwide."

Mark, you lied to me. I'm glad you did. I couldn't handle the truth. (I guess I needed him on that wall.)

Everybody who toiled to grow the ITU, and Olympic triathlon, is in my opinion vindicated. I have a lot of problems with the Olympics, but the ITU has been adroit at sidestepping that movement's dark side. Olympic-style triathlon has just been a big win. Les McDonald, of course, is due the lion's share of the glory along with Loreen Barnett, who acted as the softer side complementing McDonald's longshoreman baseball bat temperament and tactics.




Nowadays everybody gets along. If the ITU's president, Marisol Casado, and Ironman's Andrew Messick were any closer they'd be sharing Thanksgiving and Christmas together. They're now involved in a rules harmonization process and while neither of these two entities commands what happens at the national federation level it's hard to imagine an NF standing up to a strong request to harmonize rules from both these organizations.

USA Triathlon

I was very critical of this federation's decision to host, and pay for, a WTS race in San Diego. This just isn't the triathlon hotbed it once was. I and others predicted this would be a financial disaster and it was. Plenty of foreknowledge what would and did happen.

Offsetting that is the brilliant choice of Chicago, and unless somebody lifts the blinders from my eyes and sets me straight on the matter, USAT has more than overcome its false start in San Diego and triumphed unequivocally in Chicago. USAT should be very proud of what it helped produce in Chicago. Keep it coming.

ITU Production and Coverage

Triathlon is infamous for being about as interesting to watch as paint drying. I'd rather watch bowling. I'd rather watch anything. Not so now. Yes, I wish more races were held on hilly bike courses. We'll get there, hopefully.

The ITU is second only to Ironman and certain other classic races (e.g., Challenge Roth) in the scope of the production on the ground, and it beats Ironman and everyone else when it comes to live coverage and live TV. Barrie Shepley I cannot praise highly enough. He's triathlon's Larry Rawson. Yes, he's sometimes wrong (it's Mola's race to lose). But Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen have no better a batting average when predicting when a break is going to stick to the end. At least they all take the risk and predict. Barrie makes triathlon interesting to watch on the TV.




Gwen Jorgensen

In 1989 or 1990 a long-legged, straight brown haired girl showed up at my house. I don't remember how we found Carol Montgomery or how she found us, but we were her new bike and wetsuit sponsor and this was at the very beginning of the ITU and before draft-legal. I went running and riding with Carol to get a handle on what it was we just signed up for. Bike or run, it did not matter, this lady was special. She hiked her leg over the top tube and it seemed she was born to cycling. Running? Jeebus, I remember thinking after the first 200 yards. This is Mark Allen without the snakes and snails and puppy dog tails.

According to memory Carol Montgomery represented Canada in both triathlon and the 10,000 meters at the same Olympics. We have that kind of talent racing again and, no, I'm not talking about a Brownlee.

What Gwen Jorgensen does not have is Carol Montgomery's obvious and immediate grace on the bike. What Gwen does have is the ability to be the best triathlete in the world, and be among the top 10,000 meter runners in the United States, at the same time. The USATF 10,000 meters was won this past weekend by Kim Conley, ahead of Jordan Hasay, in 32:02. Two months ago Gwen ran a road 10k in Australia in 32:21. She was first woman and second place, 35 seconds behind, was Aussie runner Eloise Wellings, who owns PRs of 14:54 and 31:41. Did Ms. Wellings just have a down race? Behind her was a 9:38 steepler (who owns a 15:27 5k as well). If you translate Gwen's race to the track, she wins over a sub-15min 5k runner by half a lap. Yes, I think Gwen's that good.




I'm not saying Gwen should go for both. But if she did try it, I would not wager against her. If nothing else I'd like to see her make the 10,000 squad and then bow out to concentrate on triathlon. What a statement.


Cycling

It should be clear to anyone by now that ITU racers are great at all 3 segments, not to mention their lightning-fast transitions. Still, here's where I pee in the Cheerios. It's a mystery how so many ITU racers miss what seem to me fairly well established norms in cycling behavior. What immediately sticks out is how wedded both male and female (but especially female) triathletes are to their hoods. Nothing against hoods, I love mine. But not when I'm cornering, braking, riding in close quarters on the flats at high speed, accelerating out of a turn while out of the saddle.

To me the most likely culprit is handlebars too low. I have never seen a group of top cyclists more in need of a bike fit. This is not universal. It's clear that the Spaniards in the men's race understand cycling in a way that much of the rest of the world does not. They look good on their bikes, and they are all near the front of the pack, but not on the front. They have a tactical and technical advantage over the field and I would guess that this is part of the reason they run so fast. Yes, they're just great runners too. But I would not be surprised if 15 or 20 seconds of each of their 10k splits can be attributed to time saved because they are students of cycling.




A lot of these athletes begin without much chance at a good bike position because they're on bikes a size too small. When your bars are so low you can't get into the drops comfortably, yet you have 20mm or 30mm between your frame and your stem, and your stem is pitched 12 degrees up from the horizon, your bike is too small.

Beyond that, well, if 10 cyclists who are routinely second pack swimmers in ITU racing were fitted properly to their bikes and spent January, February and March racing criteriums, and any 6 of those athletes showed up at each ITU race, they'd motor up a :40 gap out of the water in 5 miles.


AG draft legal?

My first three triathlons, in 1978, 79 and 80, all had draft-legal bike segments. The one in 1980 led with the bike leg, ended with the swim. I've never been averse to draft-legal racing. I also like no-draft racing. But I own a road race bike and I don't mind riding it in a triathlon. The issue of categorization always comes up. But for me and those in my cohort – I'm 57 – I'm a lot more likely to race a USA Cycling event age-graded, as in 55+. Just like triathlon. And, heck, a lot of the races I do, they might as well be draft legal, and if they're going to be that closely packed I'd prefer my contemporaries were on road race bikes.

So, I don't know. I think draft-legal age-group triathlons have a place. No tri bikes allowed, of course. Maybe even a draft legal wave or two in an otherwise no-draft triathlon.




  

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