We continue our look at the state of duathlon in the UK...
“It wasn’t viewed as a negative development for Powerman Zofingen initially, but more and more endurance athletes would start focusing on the more lucrative sport of triathlon, which resulted in a continuous loss of participants,” says the Powerman Zofingen media officer Raphael Galliker on triathlon’s acceptance into the Olympic Games programme. As elite athletes started to chase their Olympic dreams, and with the continued draw of Ironman Hawaii, duathlon suffered. Our own magazine’s name change from just 220 to 220 Triathlon in early 2001 highlighted the shift in multisport’s priorities, with the high-profile Dannon Duathlon Series in America bowing out in 2004.
Dermott Hayes, a head coach at RG Active who’s been in multisport for 14 years, believes triathlon’s rise has heralded duathlon’s decline. “Duathlon hit a brick wall and unfortunately that brick wall was triathlon. We should never be negative about triathlon, but it really kicked duathlon into touch. Triathlon had the sex appeal and duathlon became its little brother. It became seen as something to do for training before the triathlon season starts.”
Powerman Zofingen wasn’t immune to organisational issues, with the race coming close to folding due to staff shortages and financial problems in 2003, a far cry from the days of offering a Hawaii-eclipsing $200,000 prize pot. Swiss banker Stefan Ruf arrived in time to resuscitate the event in 2003 and put a new board together, with an epic encounter between Stefan Riesen and Belgium’s rising duathlon superstar Benny Vansteelant ensuring the classic races kept on coming.
Alongside six-time Zofingen winner, Hungary’s Erika Csomor, Benny Vansteelant was the unrivalled superstar of early 21st-century duathlon. Born in 1976 in Torhout, the athlete had already notched up four standard-distance ITU world championships and three of his four ITU long-distance duathlon wins by the time of his first Zofingen title in 2005. A year later, courtesy of another formidable bike leg, Vansteelant recorded his second Zofingen win. Few could have predicted it would be his last.
Ten days after dropping out of the 2007 Zofingen event with stomach issues on the run, Benny Vansteelant was hit by a car during a training ride in Belgium. He suffered a broken leg, a torn spleen and damage to his lungs and heart, and would die of a pulmonary embolism days later. Duathlon had lost its leading light.
Shoots of recovery
The downward trajectory of duathlon would continue, with the ITU Long Course Duathlon World Championships being cancelled in 2009 due to the lack of an organiser. Yet there were glimmers of recovery for the sport as the decade ended. At Zofingen’s 20th birthday in September 2009, Benny’s younger brother Joerie won the event on his first attempt, producing a 6:11hr course record to secure an emotional victory for all involved in the sport. The event would see over 1,000 entrants, the largest field since the start of the decade.
The next year, Edinburgh hosted a successful ITU world duathlon championship event, with Scottish athlete Cat Morrison taking the women’s title. A partnership between the International Triathlon Union (ITU) and Powerman would follow, with Zofingen hosting the ITU Long Course Worlds up to 2015.
Although a clear show of solidarity between the world’s leading duathlon race organiser – Powerman now has a worldwide series of nearly 20 races – and its federation, the pro numbers in Zofingen remain low (Brit stars
Cat Morrison and Lucy Gossage are just two examples of top duathletes emigrating to tri), with Britain’s former Olympic cyclist Emma Pooley’s emphatic victory in 2014 coming in a field of just 12 female elites.
Nonetheless, the ITU is open to continuing the agreement beyond 2015, but admitted that duathlon sits behind the mixed relay and long-course triathlon in any Olympic-inclusion push. An ITU spokesperson also said that there are currently no plans for the sport to have its own independent federation and it will continue to be governed by the ITU.
Domestically, the duathlon scene is also full of dark clouds and silver linings. At the time of press, the future of Powerman UK was undecided, with the Spring Ballbuster also absent for 2015 as the Human Race team streamlines its events calendar. “We decided to go back to the original, which was just one event in winter. Having two events split the audience; the total Ballbuster competitors didn’t increase.
By having only one event, it cut costs operationally and also has resulted in a sell-out event,” says a Human Race spokesperson.
While British Triathlon has no data on duathlon participation, 25% of participants in the Triathlon Industry Association survey had raced a duathlon in 2013, consistent with the previous survey in 2011. One Step Beyond also reports that entrant numbers for their Nottingham Duathlon are up from 2013 and the London Duathlon continues to be the world’s biggest run/bike/run event in terms of participation. An enticing new addition has also been added to the April 2015 calendar.
“With Storm the Castle, we’re aiming to bring things back in favour of duathlon and return the sport to the public eye,” says RG Active head coach Dermott Hayes of the new 10km run/ 33km bike/5km run duathlon set in Ludlow, Shropshire. “We’ve chosen a challenging terrain in an area that hasn’t really been tapped into by multisport, with a finish line actually inside Ludlow Castle. With the course that we’ve got, what we’re hoping for is the duathlon equivalent of the Slateman. On the face of it, tri is a harder event, as people struggle with the swim, but I think any experienced athlete will tell you that duathlon is the harder event.”
As 220 was still walking like John Wayne a week after the Ballbuster, we can concur with Hayes that duathlon is easily as physically demanding as anything the triathlon legs in the slate mines of Snowdonia or the mountains of the Côte d’Azur have thrown at us. But what’s clear is that plenty of further progress needs to be made to the sport if it can ever return to the heady heights of the 90s. The sport remains at a crossroads and will need more grassroots funding, pro purses and coverage from the media to (re)grow.
“As in all sport, elite athletes are looking to pay the mortgage and require races with decent prize money,” says Cat Morrison. “Encouraging event organisers to run duathlon events in tandem with triathlons is an option – just look at Alpe d’Huez.” It’s certainly a tall order… although a pair of brothers from Holmfirth ditching three-discipline racing for two would be a good start.
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