The Ironman World Championship will leave the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time next month as St George in Utah steps up to host the rearranged 2021 contest.
While Kona may have a monopoly on the history of this event, the new venue promises even more intrigue as to who will come out on top in the professional races, and arguably makes it even harder to call.
With more elevation on the bike and run than in Hawaii, but without the sapping humidity of the Pacific island, St George looks a far more open contest than the annual October pilgrimage to Hawaii.
We are also shorn of some of the biggest names on the men’s side, most notably three-time winner and defending champion Jan Frodeno, who has withdrawn with an Achilles tear, and two-time champion Patrick Lange, who suffered a bike crash in February and hasn’t been able to regain fitness in time.
Also absent are 2019 runner-up, Tim O’Donnell of the USA, and the usual swim leader, Australia’s Josh Amberger.
It leaves just one former Ironman world champion in the field, but while 2014 winner Sebastian Kienle has the pedigree, he’s also been plagued by injuries and announced he’ll retire at the end of 2023.
While St George has hosted several high calibre races in recent years over the middle distance, including last year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship, a full iron distance race has not taken place there since 2012.
How it will play out against the red rock backdrop remains in question, but despite the missing Germans, there are new faces who have already proved they can take Ironman racing by storm. Let’s look at the main contenders.
Who will win the men’s 2021 Ironman World Championship?
Kristian Blummenfelt, 27, Norway
If his debut Ironman in Cozumel in November was anything to go by, he has every chance. The Norwegian finished in a fastest-ever time over the iron distance of 7:21:11, albeit helped by a current on the swim.
If he has a weakness, it’s likely to be in the water, but as he’s shown on many occasions in short-course racing, he has the bike legs to reel in any breakaways. It’s a rare feat for a triathlete to win on Ironman World Championship debut. The last man to do it was Belgian Luc van Lierde in 1996, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise.
With Frodeno’s absence, Blummenfelt – who will go head-to-head with Alistair Brownlee in the Pho3nix Sub7 challenge a month later – will start as many people’s race favourite.
Gustav Iden, 26, Norway
UPDATE (22:52 6 May): Gustav Iden has pulled out of the Ironman World Championship due to illness.
Blummenfelt’s training partner and racing wingman who many believe is better suited to the long form of racing than the Olympic champion. Iden has the results to back up that perspective. He’s the two-time and reigning Ironman 70.3 world champion, including victory in St George in September, where he won by almost 4mins from USA’s Sam Long.
Last year also saw Iden win his debut outing over the full distance in Florida in 7:42:56, laying down a marker with a blistering 2:34:50 marathon and looking like he could go faster if pushed.
Like Blummenfelt, Iden may not be the fastest swimmer in the field, but also like his compatriot, what he lacks in the water, is more than made up for in confidence.
Alistair Brownlee, 34, Great Britain
UPDATE (22:52 6 May): Alistair Brownlee has pulled out of the Ironman World Championship due to illness.
It would be premature to write-off the chances of the double-Olympic champion who is looking to right the wrongs of his Ironman World Championship debut in Hawaii in 2019. On that occasion he trailed in 21st after struggling through the marathon, but was still harbouring short-course ambitions for the Tokyo Games.
This time the Yorkshireman is all-in for long course and preparations looked to have paid off as he led in the closing stages of Ironman 70.3 Oceanside at the start of April before a sickness bug caught up with him in the final miles and he slipped to fourth.
If back to full health, there’s every chance Brownlee can go well. The hilly course should suit his lighter frame and climbing ability on the bike. Although, ironically, given the longstanding rivalry with Frodeno, he may miss the German’s presence as a front-running ally in staving off the Norwegians.
- Alistair Brownlee: Background, career highlights, quotes
- Brownlee back from illness and ready for St George
Lionel Sanders, 33, Canada
One of the most popular Ironman racers on the circuit, the opinionated Canadian won’t be fazed by the competition and will relish the chance to cause a stir in Utah.
Sanders can be hit and miss when it comes to the full distance – his best result of finishing runner-up in the Ironman World Championship in 2017 sandwiched between a slew of disappointments: 29th (2016), 28th (2018) and 22nd (2019).
Always entertaining to watch and listen to, and now coached by Gustav Iden’s brother, Mikal, Sanders showed he was in good form by running through to second place in Oceanside recently where he prevailed over Rudy von Burg in a sprint (and photo) finish.
“There’s blood in the water” was an astute callout from a bystander as he hunted his way through the field with a race-best 1:08:28 half-marathon. If there are similar chants over the closing miles in St George, then we’ll know Sanders is in the mix.
Sam Long, 26, USA
The youngest of the home hopes racing, and one of the most popular. The Big Unit, Sam ‘Go’ Long will arrive for his Ironman World Championship debut as a pro hoping that his bike and run legs show up too, and help him become the first US man to take this title since Tim DeBoom almost 20 years ago.
Ranked PTO No 5, Long is starting to produce the results that signal him out as a leading contender. He was runner-up to Iden in last year’s Ironman 70.3 worlds in St George and won impressively over the full distance in Coeur d’Alene in the neighbouring state of Idaho in June.
This season has started promisingly, too, with victories in CLASH Miami and Challenge Puerto Varas. Long struggles in the swim, but if he can make headway on the bike, expect to hear plenty of “yo yo yos” of support on the marathon.
Also worth keeping an eye on…
Alistair Brownlee isn’t the only Brit in the men’s field. Joe Skipper placed sixth in Hawaii in 2019 and has been on a tear ever since – winning in Florida, Taupo, Bolton and Chattanooga over the full distance.
Not daunted by the opposition, as he explains here, Skipper finished fourth in South Africa at the start of April and then announced he’d contracted Covid-19. How he recovers from the virus will be pivotal to his chances. (Update: Skipper has since confirmed he won’t be racing in St George).
The third Brit is Scotland’s David McNamee – GB’s most successful male athlete at the event with two third-place finishes in 2017 and 2018. Decent results have been hard to come by since, although third place at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt last summer suggested the Scot might be approaching something like his old self. Has the experience, if not the form, to be a factor late in the race.
Now coached by Brit Dan Plews, the veteran Spaniard qualified for this race way back in October 2019 but will go to the start as one of the few who have registered victories in 2022 – an Ironman 70.3 win in Pucon, Chile, getting his season off to a promising beginning.
Two other unheralded names are Denmark’s Daniel Baekkegard and New Zealand’s Kyle Smith. Baekkegard was tipped by Kienle as the next non-German winner of the Ironman worlds and hasn’t missed a non-drafting race podium since finishing 15th in Hawaii on debut in 2019.
Smith, who is only 24 and was brought up in Lancashire before moving across the world, is Frodeno’s training partner in Girona and a powerful swim-bike specialist who is likely to set the race alight early on.
Germany’s Sebastian Kienle, now 37, also merits a mention. The German has been on the podium four times in Hawaii, including a win in 2014 and third place in 2019. A consistent Achilles injury has meant he’ll retire after the 2023 season, but until then he’ll remain one of the best cyclists in the sport.
Finally, if Sam Long is the US young gun in St George, then Ben Hoffman, 38, Matt Russell, 38, and Andy Potts, 45, are flying the flag for the elder statesmen. Between them they have 12 top 10 results in the Ironman World Championship, and Hoffman even won the last full distance Ironman race held here in 2012.
Top image credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Ironman