If you’re hunting omens for British triathlon success in 2015, look no further than the icy Yorkshire Dales on New Year’s Eve, where Alistair Brownlee was winning the Auld Lang Syne fell race.
It was three years on from hist last appearance and victory – the following summer he would be crowned Olympic champion. With brother Jonny third, the two split by another British triathlete, Mark Buckingham, an injury-free winter’s training for the siblings is a good sign of what’s to come.
It’s just as well. Building a solid base is going to be needed because there has never been more on offer for the short course speedsters to get stuck into. The ITU World Series has been extended to 10 events, starting in Abu Dhabi on the first weekend of March before travelling via Auckland, Gold Coast, Cape Town, Yokohama, London, Hamburg, Stockholm and Edmonton, to the Grand Final in Chicago in September.
The Olympic test event in Rio de Janeiro in August will also be a priority, a key selection race for most countries trying to qualify a maximum of three slots for the 2016 Games, and triathletes looking to secure their individual berths to compete beside the Copacabana.
Add a further eight races with the second tier World Cup series, plus the European Championships in Geneva in July and the inaugural European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan in June, and even Team GB may struggle to challenge on all fronts.
On the men’s side, expect consistency from Adam Bowden and Aaron Harris, who finished 2014 ranked 14th and 17th respectively, with Harris sixth in the Commonwealth Games. Plus potential breakthroughs from a trio of 20-year-olds: Gordon Benson from the fabled Leeds training group, and Scottish team-mates, training and study partners Grant Sheldon and Mark Austin. Olympic selection will be tough, but the thorny issue of that third team member being a domestique (or ‘pilot’ using the new lexicon) can stay on the backburner… for now.
The global threat is likely to come from the select group of ITU racers who can run the coveted sub-30minute 10km off the bike. Chief amongst them will be Spain’s Javier Gomez and Mario Mola, and South Africa’s Richard Murray. With ITU and Ironman 70.3 world titles to defend, Gomez may dial back a notch from his hectic 2014 schedule.
The women’s side is no less intriguing. Non Stanford, the 2013 world champion, should be back after missing the entirety of last season with a foot injury, Helen Jenkins likewise, after pulling up before the Commonwealth Games. Birmingham’s Jodie Stimpson, who won that Glasgow showdown and another two World Series races, will be back on the ITU beat after her brief flirtation with middle distance racing in Bahrain, but Commonwealth bronze medallist Vicky Holland, showing the best form of her career last summer, won’t be in action until later in the season as she battles pesky plantar fasciitis.
Supporting them there are strong swim-bikers such as 2012 Olympic domestique Lucy Hall and Jessica Learmonth, but also look out for fast-running youngster Georgia Taylor-Brown, another to miss last season through injury, and possibly even British Super Series winner Emma Pallant, if she can continue to improve her swim.
The USA’s Gwen Jorgensen is on a record run of five straight ITU World Series wins, and starts as the favourite for the World Series. If she’s part of the front pack entering T2 then those odds shorten even further, but triathlon on the women’s side is notoriously unpredictable. It’s worth noting the world ITU title has only been retained three times in 25 years since inception.
This year will be the most exciting time in Paratriathlon’s short existence. Its six categories for the 2016 Paralympics decided, the athletes can earn their spots at events running parallel to the ITU World Series. Keep a particular eye on the women’s PT4 category, chiefly for athletes with limb deficiencies, as Britain swept the World Championship podium in Edmonton with Lauren Steadman, Faye McClelland and Clare Cunningham. They arrive in London on 30th May, catch them if you can..
It’s not only hectic with the short stuff. Going long, the traditional northern hemisphere summer season has been extended so the flagship events now run from February through December, thanks largely to an Arab injection of cash that has sprung a triple crown of big money middle distance Challenge events in Dubai (February), Oman (August) and Bahrain (December) yielding a $1million prize pot to chase.
Couple this with a swelled Ironman calendar that includes the annual pilgrimage to Hawaii for the World Championships, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship leaving the United States for the first time as it heads for Zell am See-Kaprun in Austria, and now five regional Ironman championships with the addition of South Africa (African) and Brazil (Latin American) and the professionals have never had more choice.
“I see no reason why we can’t have four ‘Majors’ a year like they have in tennis,” says British pro Jodie Swallow. “Specialists will excel in their preferred habitat.” Swallow is also considering a stab at the most highly supported race in the world, Challenge Roth in Germany.
Of the British contenders, look once more to the women’s side for success with Swallow and Rachel Joyce, under new coach Julie Dibens, tackling Hawaii with renewed vigour after five times placing in the top six.
Add in former champion Leanda Cave, reigning European champion Corinne Abraham, plus Alice Hector and possibility Emma Pooley, a former time-trial world champion and Olympic silver medallist who is still only 32, and the talent is exceptional.
All will have to get by Switzerland’s Daniela Ryf, who is now a proven threat. But as usual the rear view mirrors on the run will be set for the charging Kona specialist, course record holder, and pulsating marathon runner, Australian Mirinda Carfrae.
It’s all change for the men and Spencer Smith’s fifth-placed British record finish in Kona should finally come under threat. 220 columnist Tim Don has almost secured qualification thanks to his third in the 70.3 worlds last year and win on Ironman debut in Mallorca.
If he can be in contention off the bike, the 28:56mins flat 10km runner is a real danger. As is Will Clarke, part of the successful Uplace-BMC team that scooped up 21 race wins in its debut season, Clarke contributing victories in half-Ironman races in Wimbleball and Lanzarote.
They could be joined by the ambitious Scot David McNamee, a short course racer who made the surprising and ambitious decision to turn his back on an Olympic spot and funding to throw himself straight into Ironman racing in South Africa. Others committed to the Big Dance are Challenge Weymouth winner and strong bike-runner Joe Skipper and the experienced Stephen Bayliss, who’ll kick things off in similar surroundings at Ironman Lanzarote.
There’ll be no return for Tom Lowe, as the second-fastest British iron-distance racer has bowed gracefully into retirement, nor Jersey’s Dan Halksworth, who has vowed to stick to middle distance and bike racing in 2015. Harry Wiltshire’s law exams also mean no repeat of his dramatic eight-Ironman season before finishing as leading British pro in Hawaii last year.
That race witnessed nine Europeans in the top 12, and expect that stronghold to continue with Sebastian Kienle, Jan Frodeno and Freddie van Lierde the ones to beat once more, but keep half an eye on Lionel Sanders, his 6:58:46 winning time in Florida, albeit with a cancelled swim, illustrated the Barry Shepley-trained Canadian is a fast-rising star.
Not that there is any need to leave these shores for diverse, challenging racing. Ironman will deliver a superfast 70.3 at Staffordshire as a contrast to the notoriously tough Wimbleball and Ironmans of Tenby and Bolton, with all races already sold out. Challenge also expect a strong field of high standard age-groupers and professionals, having teamed up with the European Triathlon Union to make Weymouth a championship venue in September.
It’s the same story for cross-country tri lovers, as Xterra England doubles as the European championship on the Vachery estate in Surrey with an increased purse of $25,000 and 50 slots for the world championships in Maui. It’s a terrific success story after the event’s future looked in doubt with the demise of original franchise holders Brave Events at the start of last year.
The rich British triathlon heritage continues with independent events like the Slateman, Sandman and the award-winning Outlaw gaining TV coverage, plus the Castle series which provides another five scenic events from Ireland to the north of France culminating at Hever Castle where the range of distances extend from super sprints to the full distance Bastion and see hundreds of kids brave the moat for a first taste of open water swimming.
Cost remains an issue, so whether Go-Tri, the gateway triathlon events in the mould of the successful Parkrun, can catch on will be interesting. There appear to be just a handful of pilot events available at present. If not, the behemoths of Blenheim, Windsor and London can be relied on for fantastic entry-level racing, raising plenty of smiles and vast sums for worthwhile causes, and allowing all comers to hobnob with reality TV stars.
The ITU’s much-debated decision to change sprint distant rules should see a few draft-legal races crop up, and possibly race directors’ premiums as insurance companies catch-on to the pack-riding risks. For now the elite age-group scene will remain vibrant and Great Britain will send a strong contingent to Geneva for the Euros and Chicago or the worlds, every medal hard fought for as the competition becomes tougher.
It’s not all about bling and time splits though, it’s about new experiences and testing yourself. Whether a novice triathlete, first time going long, or experienced age-grouper, triathlon continues to offer something for everyone. That’s why, from a posse of Under-10s revelling in a Scootathlon (scoot, bike, run) at Eton Dorney, to multiple-world champion Chris McCormack plunging into the icy waters of Norseman’s fjords, or American Lew Hollander stepping up to the 85-89 category in Hawaii, get to the start-line and you’ll be loving – almost – every minute of it!
(Illustration: Daniel Seex)
What are your tri highlights of the 2015 calendar? Let us know in the comments!