Up close with the 70.3 World Champion Gustav Iden

Norwegian Gustav Iden surprised many folks when he stormed to the 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Championship title in Nice, France earlier this month. The race in Nice was loaded with great talent and experience and many had fellow Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt on their radar, but most thought that the men's title was going either to Alistair Brownlee (GBR), Javier Gomez (ESP) or Sebastian Kienle (GER).

Gustav Iden however thought differently, raced smart and hard and we now checked in with this young Norwegian talent.

Slowtwitch: Thank you so much for your time Gustav.

Gustav Iden: Thanks for having me! I have been a fan and user of the forum for a long time now, so it’s a cool opportunity to be able to be in the news part of slowtwitch now.

ST: I assume by now you have recovered from the 70.3 Worlds, so what are you up to now?

Gustav: Yes, finally recovered by now. But I have been taking it very easy and not stressed one bit. I think I deserved that as a newly crowned World Champion. Now I am preparing to do a Super League event in Jersey. It is my first time racing that kind of triathlon, and since I haven’t been able to put in any kind of hard work lately I do not have big expectation for the first weekend of that Super League Triathlon. But the next one, 3 weeks after Jersey, in Malta I hope to be one of the top contenders.

ST: In our forum you started an Ask Me Anything thread and folks loved it. Were you surprised by the interest?

Gustav: No, not really surprised. I am part of a new up and coming Norwegian team who are on the forefront of training and using science to our advantage, so I thought at least some people would want to see if they could implement some of our thoughts and strategies in to their racing and training as well. After all, triathletes have always been super far ahead when it comes to research, training and equipment.

ST: When someone asked you what type of triathlon you preferred you said Olympic was the most fun, considering your limited experience with other (longer) distances. In that response you also said “There it' non-stop racing for almost two hours, but with 70.3 the racing doesn't really start until late in the running.” Many folks have actually expressed the thought before that ITU Olympic racing was boring because nothing happens until the run. Can you explain your point more?

Gustav: Yes, what I mean its 70.3 is more a game of patience and numbers. The swim is kind of the same as ITU, but less important, and thus I guess people are less willing to risk it in the front to go super hard. The bike is calculated from the power meter, and the run is a nice even pace to go as fast as your energy reserves allow you to go. I feel like in ITU everything depends on staying with the pack. That means really all out swim for most of us. A make it or break it in T1, and sprint on the bike for the first few kilometers on the bike to try to bridge up. From there it is a game of cat and mouse to see who can play out the others run leg on the bike. And on the run no one cares about what times you are doing. It is all about crossing that line first.

From training you can know your time +/- some seconds on the bike/run for the 70.3 if you have enough data and knowledge. And you have some thoughts of what your competitors are able to. In an ITU race I can come 1st or 35th just because of T1 if I am not able to bridge up.

What I meant with the late on the run leg comment was mostly because the two 70.3 events I had done until that point were kind of boring and it was just the last 10k it was a bit of action and tactics happening. Of course the World Championships in Nice where kind of exactly the opposite.

ST: In Nice you rode the race on a road bike with clip on aero bars. Can you describe the whole setup in detail?

Gustav: My set up was pretty simple. My standard Specialized Venge ViAS from early 2018. I changed out the Roval CLX64s for some Zipp 404, which I borrowed from a friend. Thanks, Cedrik! My wheel bearings were completely gone and I did not have the tools to change. 160mm disc front and back for better braking performance. The long aero cockpit instead of the standard ITU short one I normally use. I had satellite shifters in the front under some grip tape. Bottle cages behind the seat and under the handlebars, a bad decision (laughs). This one did not hold any bottles. Power meter is my Garmin Vector 3. The set up is not complete without a helmet, which I didn’t have 24 hours before the race because some misunderstandings with Oakley. Went out on Instagram to get a new one. A lot of people where willing to lend me one. I really love the triathlon community. Some pros also reached out. India Lee among them. Ended up getting a brand new one from Ekoi. I think it was the world’s cheapest sponsorship contract they have ever done with a World Championship winner. (laughs)

ST: Was that bike selection a specific choice for the course, or just what you are most familiar with? Or simply put, why that bike?

Gustav: Multiple reasons. First of my TT bike is old and heavy and does not have functioning brakes. I bought it new in 2011 for about 1200 dollars (11 000 NOK). It’s a Felt DA4. Also, I have hundreds of hours on my current setup and feel really comfortable and aero on it. I would never have used it on a different course. So I was very lucky that it all fell together so nicely. With the short travel between WTS GF Lausanne and Nice, the hilly course and also being shortly after my planed peak fitness for the year.

ST: You started triathlon in 2006 I believe and your background was apparently cycling? Can you talk about your previous cycling experience?

Gustav: I would not say I started triathlon in 2006. But I did my first triathlon that year. It was the same place as the youth national Cycling Championships. The father of Jørgen Gundersen invited us to do the race and we went with it. He was teaching us how triathlon works just before the race was. My real start of triathlon was some years later. Then I did races more regularly, and my focus from cyling moved more and more over to triathlon.

I was a pretty talented cyclist. I have never won the national champs in my age group, but I have many many podiums. I used to cycle with Odd Christian Eiking who did Le Tour de France this year. My biggest triumph as a cyclist was also one of the last I did. In Sweden there is this huge 6-day tour called U6. As a 16 year old I won the overall in my class. Went on a solo breakaway one stage 2 for 60km and won with over a minute. It was super cool to ride the rest of the tour with the yellow jersey!

I have also won junior nationals in cross-country running and 2000 meter steeple chase.

ST: On social media I saw various posts hinting that you do not have a bike sponsor. Is that correct, and if so has that maybe changed by now?

Gustav: I had a deal with a local shop in 2018. I got the shop price minus a little. So I had to pay a pretty penny for the Venge. My plan was to sell it after the season last year, but it seemed so wasteful to sell a bike that was just so good to buy a new one which is maybe 1% better, but new design. So I just kept it. No bike deal for 2019. No private sponsor what so ever for 2019 actually. I have always been thinking that the sponsors will come if I keep performing and being myself on social media platforms, building a loyal fan base. And now they are coming in big time. And it is perfect timing, for the bike is starting to feel the miles a little now. But the quality of the high-end bikes now are just super! Easily last 5 seasons if you are like me and take good care of them. A fresh chain for every race!

ST: Once you have a new TT bike and maybe some other 70.3 races on the schedule, would you go visit a wind tunnel to get good data? About all the equipment including tri suits and helmets.

Gustav: We are for now getting good data from Notio Konnect, but for more detailed data and choice of equipment I think I will go to the wind tunnel in the future. What I have used so far in my career is just the things that I have got. So I don’t have a lot of things to chose from in regards of fabric or helmets. I have not had a huge advantage of getting in the wind tunnel. I think equipment wise things are opening up a bit for me, and I have some more things to choose from. My position on my road bike with clip on for ITU is world class in regards of my measured CdA.

ST: Also, you apparently had no race nutrition with you. What exactly happened?

Gustav: Yeah, I was standing on the start line just thinking. They held us for so long so I got to do plenty of thinking. Then I went over my race plan once again. Swim hard. Front pack. T1 Run fast to my bike, race belt on, helmet on. Get out. Get in the bike shoes. Calm down. Drink a sports drink. Take a gel. Take a gel? Then I just felt so dumb. I started to think the race was over actually. I was going to put 4 gels in my back pocket, but all the different routines and ways you do it before the start in Ironman threw my focus out a bit. I had forgotten the gels. And just when I start my bike leg I also lost one of my bottles. So out of 200grams of carbs I had planed to take in during my ride, I was left with 45. That’s one quarter. And that’s not enough to even finish. And forget about winning! I drank my first bottle before the first aid station, and then grabbed one from there. Of course lost it a bit later, but at least got some highly wanted carbs in. But how much? I had no idea of how much I drank, or how the mixture was. So my nutrition strategy went from a calculated power and weight based math problem that we did pre race, to a just grab what you can and drink a much as you can before your bottle cage drops it again. I have a pretty hardcore stomach, and really have not any problems there. I think that was key to surviving an unknown sports drink during high load.

ST: In an ITU race, what do you take with you?

Gustav: 2 bottles of sports nutrition is all.

ST: So all liquid basically. What about on course nutrition?

Gustav: Yes, nothing more than the 2 bottles of sports nutrition when it comes to carbohydrates. On the run I take water, but that is more of how I feel. I know I don’t really need to drink much more than the 2 bottles in a normal race - every race that is not Tokyo.

ST: Swimming is apparently still your weakest discipline. So what do you do swimming wise now? And can you describe what one of your harder swim sets looks like?

Gustav: I have changed my swimming program a bit from longer threshold sessions to harder race pace sessions. I still have some of the longer ones, but that is not our main focus right now. What we did today is an example of a normal hard session we do. Our main set was 4 x 300 threshold + 3 x 100 at 1:07 pace starting at 1:50. For the longer threshold we can do 6 x 800 or something similar. I do about 1:15 pace during those types of sessions.

ST: The next Olympic Games are in 2020 in Tokyo. How does the selection process in Norway work for triathletes?

Gustav: We have a subjective selection. The Norwegian Olympic Committee decides who goes and who don’t. For now we have 3 free spots and 3 athletes who have shown a high consistent level over the last year. So I guess there will be no big surprises.

ST: And where does triathlon rank in terms of popularity in your country?

Gustav: Far behind almost all winter sport, but with global warming I will give it another 5 years and we will all be summer sport athletes in Norway! I think it gradually is becoming a sport of the people. Its slowly getting traction on TV, and the local newspaper in my hometown is writing often about it. So it is getting better and better. But football (soccer) is still very big, which does not make sense, because we are really bad. Like really, really bad.

ST: Did you play football (soccer) when you were younger?

Gustav: Yes, but not much. I was in a band and played bass guitar and liked to do that more than playing football. We played at some kind of bigger concert and even went to the studio to record some songs. It was a cool experience. This was when I was very young though. I think from 8 years old to about 12 years old when I wanted to cycle more. I still have my old guitar, but never play.

ST: I think you surprised many folks when you said that the Ironman 70.3 World Championships were not an A race for you. Which event or events this year did you select as A races?

Gustav: My three A races was spread out a bit. Bermuda, the Tokyo test event and Lausanne. I hit peak performance really good on all three. I also had very high hopes for Leeds this year, but that was a train wrack of a race. My worst performance in my career compared to what I expected before the start. And Nice being 1 week after one of the A race I would say that’s pretty much make you peak fitness of the year.

ST: What do you think about the Norseman race? Not as in are you planning to do it soon, but in terms of the challenge of it.

Gustav: Norseman is a unique race! Its super big in Norway. It is what all dream of taking part of. I think one of the reasons is that it takes competition aspect all out of it. It’s just about finishing and the journey of doing it. And finishing is hard! My dad tried, but couldn’t do it because of sickness. I have to do it one day!

ST: Outside of triathlon, what other interests do you have?

Gustav: I love to take pictures! My current set up is a Sony A7III with a 85mm F1.8 lens. I have it with me all the time! Sometimes also on easy bike rides!

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Gustav: I have more followers in Taiwan than in Norway because of the cap I wore in Nice. The picture of me wearing a Taiwanese cap went viral in Taiwan. It is such a crazy story its kind of hard to believe. I found a cap on the ground while preparing for the test event in Tokyo. We where running out in no mans land at the foot of mount Fuji. Saw a cap on the ground. And as the weird guy I am I just started to use it. I had no idea what it said. I asked one of my Japanese friends. They didn’t know either. Well I didn’t care. It looked cool so why not just use it. In Bahrain last year I wore a cool Patagonia cap from my brother in hopes to be getting some free Patagonia merchandise afterwards. Or at least a shout out on Instragram from them! That did not work. This year I used it for practical reasons. I put my sunglasses and 4 gels in the cap and kind of closed it together in the T2 bag. That way I just had to grab one item instead of 5 during my transition. And from there the story just took of. The writing on the cap was from a small temple in Taiwan. I read some news story some send to me that I wore the cap for good luck. So triathletes from all over Taiwan went to that temple in Taiwan to get the cap for good luck. They had such high demands for the cap that they have ordered 20,000 new hats so everyone will get one! They had a 30-minute news broadcast of me and that temple on Taiwanese TV. I mean, this is so crazy that a 23 year old stealing the world title is the smallest part of the story! It is absolutely surreal.

ST: Wow indeed. Back in the 80s there was a popular song called Big in Japan by the German band Alphaville. Maybe there can be a new version now with Big in Taiwan by a Norwegian band.

Gustav: Yes, I will get together my old band members and make the song! We will perform it in the temple after the Olympic games.

Images courtesy of Ingo Kutsche and Mikal Iden.

The interview was handled via email and went back and forth a few times over a span of a week. A bike gallery of Gustav Iden's bike will be uploaded on Friday.