Despite grumbling that the Clearwater course lacks challenging hills and its flat contour invites a draft effect on the bike, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship has produced great, highly competitive races and very worthy champions. In 2006, Craig Alexander won his first world title in a rugged duel with 5-time ITU World Champion Simon Lessing In 2007, Andy Potts won a tremendous duel with Oscar Galindez by four seconds. Last year, young Terenzo Bozzone finally solved the Clearwater puzzle that left him blowing up to 6th in 2006 and 9th in 2007 with a world best 3:40:10 finish that withstood a blazing run by 70.3 rookie Andreas Raelert.
As in previous years, many of the Clearwater winners have moved on to the quest for success at Ironman Hawaii and don’t want to chance stressing their bodies just a month after Kona. So Craig Alexander, Andy Potts, and Andreas Raelert are not returning. But Clearwater clearly holds the allure of a World title and great racing.
Matt Reed, 33, USA -- 3-1
Why pick a man who has only done a few half Ironman distance races? Number one, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship and its nearly flat, high speed course in Clearwater has always favored the athletes with get-out-front short course speed on the bike and a sub-1:12 foot speed. Two, Matt Reed shut down Andy Potts at Oceanside’s 70.3, during which he ran a near course record 1:11:15 – then shut down a strong field at Connecticut’s demanding, hilly Rev3 Triathlon. Then Matt Reed went and did his best imitation of Greg Bennett, ruling the non-drafting short course world and taking this year’s Toyota Cup series with wins at Minneapolis, Chicago and Dallas. He can swim in the front pack, hang on the bike with or without drafting help for 56 miles, and can match all but Andreas Raelert (not entered) on the 70.3 half marathon.
Tim O’Donnell, 29, USA -- 4-1
To think that this was the guy that USA Triathlon was using to work as a domestíque in ITU races just two short years ago. In 2009, Tim O’Donnell proved he was a man who could close the deal when the chips were down – albeit on triathlon’s middle distance races. The big breakthrough was his course record win (broke Crowie’s mark) at the demanding (tougher than Wildflower) St. Croix 70.3 classic in 4:02:36. O’Donnell proved that was no fluke with 7-minute margin of victory at Calgary 70.3, a course record 3:45:51 and race-best run at Boulder’s 5430 long course, and topped off with an ITU long course (twice Olympic distance) World Championship in Perth, Australia with a 67-seconds margin of victory.
Greg Bennett, 37, Australia -- 6-1
This one is my long shot. Not because Greg Bennett doesn't fit the mold of the short course champion evolving naturally into a middle distance champion. Surely the two years Bennett spent as Number One in the world on the ITU circuit, his perfect $500,000 season on the Life Time Fitness circuit and countless other wins qualifies him as a prime candidate for a Clearwater win. Not to mention his current sub-30 minute 10k speed on accurately measured courses. But what throws his chances into question are two injuries - the early season leg malady and the late summer collision with a car that cost Bennett months of training. Taking a flier before he was fully healthy, Bennett won his Ironman 70.3 baptism in Augusta in 3:47:07, with a 4th best bike and a 2nd best 1:14:30 run. After all, he then had a full month to hone his game. Plus, this man can truly put the power to the 56-mile drag strip in Clearwater – then step up and blast a 1:12 run.
Richie Cunningham, 36, AUS -- 8-1
While other triathletes may have more of an aura of glamour, this Aussie has a blue collar work ethic and a great record at Clearwater – 3rd in 2006, 5th in 2007 and 3rd again last year. While other triathletes dabble in other distances like a gourmand at a food fair, Cunningham had a typically successful full 70.3 dance card: Fourth at Ironman California 70.3, 3rd at St. Croix, 2nd at Eagleman with best run, 3rd at Rev3, 2nd at Rhode Island, 2nd to Crowie at Muskoka and, finally, a win at Austin with a 1:12:11 best half marathon.
Terenzo Bozzone, 24, NZL -- 9-1
Is it dissing the glorious defending champion to offer such long odds? Remember this. After winning this title in 2006, Craig Alexander returned the next year one month after his Ironman Hawaii debut and it was all he could do to finish 4th. After his spectacular win here in 2007, Andy Potts returned to defend after his Kona debut and looked like a worn out dishrag after finishing 6th last year. Can the superbly talented Bozzone break the curse? Well, he is young and ran a conservative race in Kona to finish 11th. But history is against the New Zealander. In a stripped down 2009 schedule, Bozzone started with a 7th at Wildflower, but won Eagleman in 3:51:11 and also outdueled Macca and Cam Brown at the inaugural Philippines 70.3 in September.
Oscar Galindez, 38, ARG -- 10-1
The great Argentine biker had a very light schedule this year, taking a win at Cancun in 4:10:22. Injured? Galindez loved Clearwater, losing a tremendous duel for the win with Potts by 4 seconds in 2007, then taking third last year.
Luke Bell, 30, AUS -- 11-1
After a tremendous early career, Bell had a dry spell before he put it all together the past two years. This year he started slowly with a 6th at Wildflower, then got in gear with a 2nd to Dirk Bockel at Ironman Florida 70.3, won a duel with red-hot Tim O’Donnell; at Kansas 70.3, and cruised into this contest with a workout-smooth 4th at Austin 70.3
Reinaldo Colucci , 24, BRA -- 12-1
This tall, whip thin very young and fresh Brazilian who has been nurtured under the coaching wing of Brett Sutton will be fully great one day. But this year, his third place finish at Wildflower in May was the high point of his 70.3 season.
Brent McMahon, 29, CAN -- 13-1
This tough Canadian veteran of the ITU circuit was very impressive in his 3:52:08 win at New Orleans, capped off by a 2nd best run.
Dirk Bockel, 33, LUX -- 14-1
This German-born Luxembourg man broke away in the Olympic bike and led for 30 minutes before he faded to 25th on the run in Beijing. But he seems to have found his strength in the 70.3 and Ironman distances this year with a win at Florida 70.3 highlighted by a dominating 2:08 bike finished off with 4th-best 1:17 run. His 3rd at Ironman New Zealand and 7th at Kona point to an even better future.
Joe Gambles, 27, AUS -- 15-1
This Australian got in a good half Ironman distance groove this year – 5th at California 70.3 and Wildflower long course, 2nd to Matt Reed at Rev3, 3rd behind the Crowie-Lieto duel at Boise, and a course record 3:49:18 at Vineman 70.3 highlighted by a 2:08:15 killer bike and a strong 1:13:17 run. Another win at Lake Stevens 70.3 with best bike and best run proved Gambles’ wasn't just lucky.
Chris Legh, 37, AUS -- 16-1
When his heart ailment finally curtailed his pursuit of the Ironman, Chris Legh proved he was one of the best ever half Ironman competitors for a great two year stretch. Recent physical troubles forced him into a long competitive hiatus early this year, but a 5th at Timberman in 4:01:53 with a 2:12:45 bike and a 1:19:10 run proved he hadn’t lost his touch. A second place to fellow Boulder resident Greg Bennett at Augusta 70.3 in 3:49:27 – with a 4th best 2:09:51 bike and 4th best 1:15:15 run shows Legh is rapidly regaining his A-game.
Philip Graves, 20, GBR -- 17-1
This brash young Englishman became the youngest ever Ironman winner this year when at age 20 he dominated Ironman UK and also blazed to a win at the UK 70.3. After a disappointing 41st at his Ironman Hawaii debut, Graves is eager to display his well-balanced swim-bike-run skills.
Leon Griffin, 29, AUS -- 18-1
The 2006 ITU Short course Duathlon World Champion showed signs of regaining his form with a 2nd at Buffalo Springs Lake and a 3rd at Vineman 70.3.
Brian Fleischmann, 31, USA -- 20-1
Long cast in the shadows of top American ITU competitors Hunter Kemper, Andy Potts and Jarrod Shoemaker, Fleischmann may have found his calling in longer distance events after a 3rd place at Augusts and a 3:50:43 2nd place at Austin behind top talent Richie Cunningham -- and capped by a race-best 1:13:39 run.
Stuart Hayes, 30, GBR -- 21-1
The man who beat Greg Bennett at Chicago in 2008 and took the London Triathlon showed he could go the 70.3 distance with a 6th place at St. Croix this year. Has the speed, but what about finishing the job?
Bjorn Andersson, 30, SWE -- 21-1
One of the triathlon’s greatest cyclists led most of the Clearwater bike in 2007 – and actually hung on in the run long enough to win Wildflower in 2007. A good swimmer, Andersson will likely lead the charge to break 2 hours on the Autobahn-fast bike at Clearwater and then hang on for dear life on the run.
Massimino Cigana, 35 , ITA -- 23-1
This late-blooming 35-year-old Italian took third places at Austria and Timberman, running an impressive 1:12:32 in Austria.
Cam Brown, 37, NZL -- 24-1
The 8-time Ironman New Zealand winner is actually better at the full Ironman distance, but scored third places at 70.3 races in Rhode Island and the Philippines this year.
Andrew Starykowicz, 27, USA -- 25-1
Starykowicz put 8 minutes on the field with a 2:05:45 bike at the tough Steelhead 70.3 course, falling by two minutes to Andy Potts at the end.
Paul Matthews, 26, AUS -- 26-1
This Aussie placed 3rd at the Muskoka 70.3.
Luke McKenzie, 28. AUS -- 29-1
This burly Aussie posted a repeat win at Ironman Japan, took a 15th at Ironman Hawaii and a few weeks later led Ironman Florida until the ninth mile of the run before falling back to 6th. Trouble is, what does he have left for Clearwater? Only age group hero Joe Bonness can recover that quickly.
Stephen Bayliss, 30, GBR -- 30-1
Husband of 11-time Ironman winner Bella, Stephen Bayliss has won two Ironman events of his own in 2008. This year, he took a 4th at Ironman South Africa, a 5th at Lanzarote, and a 5th at Ironman New Zealand. Should have enough firepower to wipe away memories of his back-of-the-pack performance at Clearwater last year.
Jimmy Johnsen, 31, DEN -- 31-1
Danish competitor not yet a threat to equal countrymen Torbjorn Sindballe or Rasmus Henning. But Johnsen did take a 6th at Geelong 70.3, a 4th at Ironman Australia and a 4th at Ironman 70.3 Switzerland. His name may sound like the three-time NASCAR champion, but he spells it with a Danish “e.”