After a successful debut in Rotterdam last year, the Super League Triathlon Arena Games returned to London in all its fast-paced, sweat-soaked, lactate-inducing glory.
This time there was the welcome addition of paratriathlon competition before the able-bodied event – a first for the sport in an indoor environment – with some of the world’s best competitors, from the wheelchair class through to the visually impaired, in action.
As venues go, there could hardly be a more prestigious arena than the Aquatics Centre in Stratford’s Olympic Park, home to many cherished memories from London 2012.
And after a Covid-ravaged year, seeing the 50m Olympic pool back in operation was a welcome sight as the lane ropes turned the now familiar Super League yellow and black, and pool-side was decked out with rows of turbo trainers and curved ‘self-powered’ treadmills linked to Zwift.
The women’s race was billed as an all-British showdown between reigning ITU world champion Georgia Taylor-Brown, three-time Ironman World Championship runner-up Lucy Charles-Barclay and the developing tri talents of Beth Potter and Sophie Coldwell. It was a contest that lived up to its surroundings.
The format was three back-to-back mini-triathlons, each comprising 200m of swimming, 4km of cycling and 1km of running, with barely time catch breath in between. The order was mixed up each time with 10 points were awarded to the winner of each round, and a point less for each subsequent position.
It soon became a bruising three-way contest between Potter, Charles-Barclay and Coldwell that would be decided by the final run.
In the initial swim-run-bike combination, it was Charles-Barclay and Coldwell who emerged first from the water, with Potter was only seconds behind. The Olympic 10,000m runner, who has successfully transitioned to tri – winning a first World Cup in Valencia in November – then signalled her intent by taking the lead on the run and holding it through the cycle leg to take the opening 10 points. Coldwell and Charles-Barclay finished second and third respectively.
In the run-bike-swim that followed the order of the top three was reversed – with Charles-Barclay taking advantage of the swim being the final leg to assert her dominance in the same pool she swam the 2012 Olympic trials over 1,500m a decade earlier.
However, with the treadmill taking them to the virtual tape on the final bike-swim-run round, it played into Potter’s hands. All 10 women dismounted the bike together, and while Charles-Barclay again posted the quickest swim split, she couldn’t forge enough of an advantage to hold off a charging Potter, with Coldwell an impressive third overall.
“I’ve been working really hard on my swim these past two winters and it was good to finally get a race and show everyone what I’ve been doing,” Potter said. “I felt relaxed and ready for it – and it’s just nice to race again. A lot of it is confidence. Coming from a run background and not having swum for 10 years is hard, but having the pandemic has given me the time to put my head down and work hard.”
Such is the rapid rhythm of Super League Triathlon that the women had barely cleared the victory podium when it was time for the men to start. There was another strong contingent of Brits on show including Tokyo-bound Jonny Brownlee, plus Alex Yee, George Goodwin and late replacements, Gordon Benson and Adam Bowden.
The racing was again frenetic, and this time showed the fine margins of balancing flat-out effort with having enough time to recover. It particularly held true for Portugal’s Vasco Vilaca, the 21-year-old who had a breakthrough race to finish second in last year’s ITU world final in Hamburg.
Vilaca pipped Belgium’s Marten van Riel and Germany’s Justus Nieschlag in the sprint for the opening stage win on the bike, but suffering with that effort lost a handful of seconds on the 1km run at the start of the next round. Once he’d hopped off the treadmill and back on the bike, the pack had got away, and with it his chances of overall success.
Instead, it was Van Riel who put himself in the box-seat, touching out Brownlee in the 200m swim to win the second round, with Yee in third and last year’s Rotterdam winner Nieschlag in fifth to remain in contention to defend his title.
On to the final round, and as with the women, the men came off the bike together. The German Jonas Schomburg set the pace in the water with his languid stroke, before Nieschlag broke clear on the run to take the final 10 points. It was enough for second overall behind Van Riel, who hung tough to finish the final round in third and win by 3pts.
The best of British went to Yee. Renowned for his running with a 10km PB of 27:51, the Tokyo hopeful had enough spring in his step to finish the 1km behind Nieschlag, tying Brownlee on points, but edging out the Yorkshireman for the final podium place by virtue of a better final round.
“I thought I’d come third, but hadn’t realised the countback,” said Brownlee. “It’s the second time it’s happened – it was the same in Rotterdam – but it’s how these races work. I was really close though. I was fourth in the bike sprint in the first race, and out-touched for second in the second round. But sometimes you win and some you lose.
“It’s probably the kind of racing that favours me the least – I prefer the longer, more gruelling stuff, but I wanted to come here to get the race feeling back and go through the process of transitions and making sure it was really slick. My training has gone really well over the winter and this was a good test of fitness – because you’ve got to be really fit to do this!”
Top image shows Beth Potter in stunning form as she wins two of the three rounds to take overall victory.
Credit: Darren Wheeler/Super League Triathlon