Alistair Brownlee will start in Nice on Sunday knowing that he needs to be on top of his game if he’s to become the first British male to win the Ironman 70.3 world title.
Simon Lessing, Andrew Johns, Tim Don twice, and Brownlee make up a ‘who’s who’ of British tri talent to have made the podium in the 70.3 worlds without reaching the top step.
But to achieve the feat on the Côte d’Azur, the 31-year-old Yorkshireman must defeat one of the strongest fields ever assembled that includes many of the world’s best over all distances.
That list is headed by Brownlee’s long-time nemesis Javier Gomez, a five-time short course world champion and twice 70.3 victor. Then there is the Norwegian duo Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden, who hold the fastest times ever recorded at the distance, with Blummenfelt stopping the clock at 3:29:04 in Bahrain in December, with Iden just 21sec behind.
Current champion Jan Frodeno has opted to sit out to concentrate fully on Hawaii, but German representation is still strong, with top billing going to Sebastian Kienle and Patrick Lange. Kienle is the 2012 and 2013 70.3 world champion and underlined his prowess at the middle distance by winning the Challenge Championship in Slovakia in June. Lange has won the past two Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, producing the fastest marathon split each time.
Brownlee looked in solid form in winning Ironman 70.3 Dun Laoghaire on the east coast of Ireland last month by 10mins and the testing course in southern France, where the bike leg rises from the shores of the Mediterranean to 962m altitude, should suit his talents.
He’s also not short of motivation and will want to go one better than last year when he finished second to Frodeno in Port Elizabeth in South Africa, where a 67min half-marathon still wasn’t enough for victory having reached T2 with Gomez and the German for company.
Although Brownlee has also qualified for the Ironman World Championship via a debut victory in Youghal in southern Ireland, he’s been clear in stating that 2019 in Hawaii will primarily be a learning experience, and it is the 70.3 crown that is his priority for the season.
If he needs positive omens, he could point to Blummenfelt, Iden and Gomez all having raced on a tough course in Lausanne in the World Triathlon Series Grand Final on Saturday. But if the trio are jaded from those endeavours, the contest also underlined they are in imperious form, especially the Norwegians, with Blummenfelt running to a maiden WTS victory and Iden finishing fourth.
In a 67-strong field of professional men, the threat isn’t restricted to those highlighted above. Like last year, Ben Kanute will try to establish himself at the front of the race from the start. The American’s aggressive style aligns with Brownlee’s in trying to break from the main pack, but although finishing fourth last year, Kanute lacks the running pedigree of Brownlee, Gomez or Blummenfelt.
Another American, Rodolophe von Berg, is a dark horse having beaten Gomez in the Ironman 70.3 European Championship in Denmark in June, thanks largely to a race-best 2:01:36 bike split. And a third USA star, Andrew Starykowicz, jumps out as one who refuses to hold back on the bike. Starykowicz is also the current Ironman bike split record holder and will place great stock in reaching T2 first.
Belgian’s Pieter Heemeryck should not be counted out either. He was fifth in 2018 and split the podium of Kienle and Von Berg to take silver in the Challenge Championship in Samorin this year, where he out-biked them both. But was still slower than Germany’s Andreas Dreitz, an Erdinger team-mate of Lange’s, who also lines up in Nice and can rival any of the field for pedal power.
There are also five other British contenders who will be battling for a top 10 finish, including Adam Bowden, who was seventh last year and third behind Brownlee in Dun Laoghaire, Elliot Smales runner-up in Dun Laoghaire, George Goodwin, who set a course record in winning Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire this year, Thomas Davis, coming off a recent seventh place in Poland, and Sam Pictor, who’s on the start list despite suffering a broken wrist and dislocated elbow in a bike crash during the Staffordshire race.