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ST: Well thanks, but back to you now. You just grabbed another age group title in Texas and ended up as the 2nd fastest age grouper overall. Are you happy with what you did on that day?
Sam: Yes, very happy. There weren’t too many setbacks during my preparation so I was anticipating a good race.
ST: Why had you chosen that race in particular? After all it is a long way from Belgium.
Sam: Early in the year every race is for away from Belgium and it is closer than South Africa where I participated the previous 3 years. Also, IMSA moved away from the great bike course they had in 2015 and installed an even more dangerous version of the IMTX course, so that incentive is gone as well. On the other hand, my partner Cai and I love to see different parts of the world and on top of that, we are big fans of the Houston Rockets. So the possible opportunity to see a game of them made us pull the IMTX trigger.
ST: When did you arrive and how did you feel before the race?
Sam: We arrived on Sunday so we enjoyed 2 nice bike rides early in the week in Montgomery county on the Oilman tri course and combined those with open water swims in Lake Conroe since we didn’t swim since Kona. On Wednesday night we went to the Houston Rockets game, which was an amazing experience. Pre-race week was full of good vibes so I felt very ready to roll, both mentally and physically.
ST: You mean the first open water swim since Kona or the first swim – period?
Sam: Between Kona and now, I swam 85h on the Vasa indoor trainer and during the 2 weeks before I headed to Texas I spent 7h in the endless pool to get some feel for the water. Add the 2 open water swims in Lake Conroe and you have my complete swim prep.
ST: Is that pretty typical for you?
Sam: Yes, the Vasa is a great swim trainer if you use it right. The only thing it doesn’t train is your core muscles, so I need to get a couple of hours in the water before a race to activate those again. Lap pool swimming is such a waste of time and it is impossible to fit that in my busy work schedule.
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ST: Well, well. Did you hear anything before the race about course distances possibly being different than “advertised” and apparent safety concerns?
Sam: I had studied the bike course on Bestbikesplit, which is a total useless for a course like IMTX by the way, and already anticipated that it was only 177k. In the end it appeared to be 176k, which is ok for me. Lots of courses are short. IM Austria for example only has a 175k bike and 41.6k run, but nobody seems to find it an issue when Marino rides a record time there. IM Nice is 173k bike and 41.5k run and few seem to care. The run course in Texas was exactly 26.2m according to my watch.
ST: I have seen GPS files ranging from 108-110 miles for the bike course and I think your unit did not work all the time. Did you notice it during the race or after the fact that you had a data drop?
Sam: My Wahoo Elemnt listed 172k and was out twice for 3 minutes so that covers 4k so 176k was the real distance and was also measured by the device of my partner who raced as well.
ST: Talk about your race day.
Sam: The night before the race we really slept well which is always a good start. We got up at about 3am and had the usual breakfast routine. We were so relaxed that we were almost too late for the swim start, although this was actually a good thing, as I don’t like standing in a big group of people for a long time. Anyway, I got in the water within the first minute of the rolling start and tried to swim in a relaxed way as I know ‘trying to swim fast’ actually makes me swim slower. After about 1h05’ I was on my bike which is decent for me.
My plan was to bike at 260 watts which is very conservative but that would be enough to bike under 4:30, so I started at that pace. There was the occasional athlete overestimating his capabilities passing me, but I didn’t get involved into endless overtaking and re-overtaking games with people which I knew that would be left far behind by the end of the bike. Once on the toll road I rode into the first peloton and I had to decide between sticking to my plan and getting frustrated in that group or cranking up the power and move forward. At that point Vidar from Island made a move to the front and I decided to move along and pull through which appeared successful and I moved up to the front peloton where I tried to escape with some other fast bikers (Ryan, Dan, Martin and 2 guys I don’t know) but despite averaging +285 watts NP at that point it was impossible to create a gap with a group of wheelsuckers. At least we managed to ride a clean race at the front and once we left the toll road I made a little gap on the way to T2.
I felt great during the run all the time and ran a negative split 2:53 marathon. 4 guys ran past me in the beginning, I got 3 of them back later on.
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ST: Did you know where Dan Stubleski was?
Sam: I knew in advance that Dan would be the guy to beat if I wanted to be first in AG. I saw him first on the bike right before the first turning point south on the toll road at about 60k and measured a 3 minute difference at that time. I caught up with him 45k later and finished the bike a couple of seconds in front of him. About 2k into the run I felt his breath in my neck and soon he disappeared in front of me. I didn’t think he would be able to keep that pace and I was right as I passed him again with a couple of km to go. Because of the rolling start I had no idea about the real difference though so I ran as fast as I could to the finish, which appeared to be a wise decision. Dan had started about 1 minute behind me so the net gap at the finish was only 9” - luckily to my advantage. I apologized to Dan for this. I am sure he will kick me back in Kona.
ST: What about Ryan Giuliano?
Sam: I didn’t know Ryan until I talked to him when we were trying to produce some pee at the post race drug testing but he was one of the guys up front on the bike riding a clean race. He also passed me at the beginning of the run but he was the one I didn’t see back before finishing. His performance was simply outstanding!
ST: How big was that pee group?
Sam: I saw pro athletes Matt Hanson and David Plese. Ryan and I were the only amateurs tested as far as I know.
ST: Prior to IM Texas, when was the last time you were tested?
Sam: That was a long time ago! If I recall correctly it was during athlete registration at IM Kona in 2014. Before that I only got tested in 2011 in Kona when I won my AG.
ST: Only urine each time?
Sam: Urine in 2011 and now, and a pre-competition blood sample in 2014.
ST: With all those massive draft group images and videos making rounds on social media, do you think that it takes away from your victory?
Sam: Well actually it is the contrary. While it was frustrating on one hand to see zero marshals, it forced me to ride a bit harder than I planned to and thus helped me achieving a better result and I am sure the same is true for Ryan and Dan and some others. We know we can ride hard and run hard. You can’t draft during the run so the masks fall off at some point.
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ST: But many drafters are rewarded for their sins with pretty fresh legs for the run.
Sam: I agree with that and it is a sad thing for sure. I don’t understand what drives these people. For me, racing a triathlon is a personal accomplishment and I’d rather finish 5th and race clean than win by drafting. It is annoying and it forces me to ride a bit harder, which sometimes results in over biking. For people who can’t push sustained high watts it is really a disaster though. You are in a pack that you can’t escape but if 30 people ride together it takes more than 400 meters to make that a clean ride. There are not many of those type A people that will go for the 30th spot at the end of that clean riding group.
But also for referees it is a difficult task, if they are on course. Should they only focus on front packs that move really fast or also on those in the middle and the back? There are people going for a KQ in all those speed ranges and a clean race is not only something that should be a privilege guaranteed only for the fast ones.
ST: Would you return to Texas?
Sam: Yes, to see the Houston Rockets again! As for as the race is concerned, also yes but not right away. The drafting is annoying and the course is boring but it is no different than other flat courses. There is very nice roads in Montgomery county though so I hope they will take that direction one day. Also, controlling the flow at the swim start would help a lot as well when they stick to the toll road.
ST: But don’t you thus to some degree contribute to the problem? By going back IRONMAN may get the message that this is what people want.
Sam: IRONMAN is the most popular brand so they are most affected by the issue, but there is drafting in all kinds of races, even in small local ones. Especially on long courses it seems hard to find enough referees. In Kona there are plenty of referees and they handout cards (I got one last year when I applied the pro rule when overtaking a peloton during the climb to Hawi) but if there are too many undisciplined athletes their job is impossible.
ST: What about other flat and fast courses?
Sam: If you have 500 people starting a flat bike race at more or less the same time and really expect them to form an evenly spaced row then you get a row of almost 7k long (500 * (12m + 1.5m bike length)). Such a row moving at 35kph is 12 minutes long. With a mass start like Kona or semi mass start like in IMTX it is impossible, even with marshals to get this right. IMSA for example does way better here by letting about 8 people start every 5’ causing a slightly more spread out entry on the bike course. There is drafting on every course with 2000+ participants despite the start format but the accumulation of packs is way denser on flat courses compared to hilly courses, but also in Lake Placid or even Lanzarote people ride in packs on some stretches. No matter the number of marshals, the only way to avoid it is decreasing the flow of athletes on the bike course.
Challenge Roth for example. 2 loops of 90k with combined individuals and teams adds up to more than 4000 bikers and a draft rule of 20m distance! Well to achieve this you need a row of cyclists that is 86k long. Impossible! Waves, rolling starts etc won’t help because at some time everybody is on the bike.
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ST: You have been to Kona several times and you mentioned the issue there earlier.
Sam: Kona is king or should I say queen of draft fests! More than 1000 men exit the water in less than 20 minutes and the first 80k is rolling with usually a slight tailwind. Impossible to get a nice evenly space row of cyclists that is 24 minutes or 14k long here! It is simply impossible, even when there are 500 marshals.
It really is an issue that is not only the fault of ‘cheating’ athletes or lack of marshals. It is comparable with traffic jams on the road: to avoid them you need more lanes (drafting) or fewer vehicles (decreased swim exit flow).
ST: Tell us also about your bike setup you used in Texas.
Sam: I rode my Dimond Marquise, Rotor 55/42 Qrings, Reynolds Aero 80 wheels with 11-23 cassette and Continental GP TT 25 tires with butyl tubes filled with Stan’s notubes and 7bar of air. The guys from Ridley let me use their Forza Cirrus tt handlebars, which I like a lot. Drivetrain is Dura-Ace Di2. My butt sits on a Dash TT9 saddle and my feet are in Lake cycling shoes connected to a Speedplay platform. In the frame I carry a Platypus Hoser bladder that holds 1.4l of fluids consisting of gels diluted with a maltodextrin solution. My helmet is a comfy Rudy Project Boost and my suit is custom made by Bioracer Speedwear.
ST: What crank length are you riding?
Sam: In Texas I rode 172.5. I have been experimenting with lengths ranging from 130 to 180 and 172.5 feels best for my long legs and 75rpm riding style.
ST: What is next?
Sam: We really enjoyed Lake Placid last year so decided to go back. And hopefully there is some energy left in October to chase Dan in Kona!