Norfolk’s Joe Skipper is rarely lacking confidence – and that extends to his chances of putting formidable Norwegian duo Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden to the sword in May’s Ironman World Championship.
Reigning Ironman 70.3 world champion and PTO-ranked No 1 Iden and Olympic champion Blummenfelt delivered impressive Ironman debuts of 7:42:56 and 7:21:11 in Florida and Cozumel respectively towards the end of last year.
But Skipper, who finished a career-best sixth in Hawaii in 2019 – the last time the world champs was held – believes the favourites tag for the showdown in St George isn’t as justified as many believe.
Refusing to believe the hype
“Looking at the Ironman performances last year, I don’t understand why everyone was raving about Gustav in Florida,” he says. “He ran 2:34, but the course was 600-700m short – you can see on Strava. His average pace was the same as I ran at Ironman Switzerland, but Switzerland was 800-900m long and I did that off 2,200m climbing on the bike.
“In Florida, Gustav rode in a paceline behind Lionel Sanders, who I put 8min into in Chattanooga – he wasn’t even in the same postcode as me! And if you’re sat in a paceline in Florida, you’d expect to run well.
“Gustav uploaded his data, and it was 250 watts on the bike. That’s just a zone 2 ride. I averaged 260 watts for 4.5hrs on my Sunday ride and then ran 10km at 3:20 per km. If they ride 250 watts in St George, they’ll be so far behind starting the run, they won’t even be a factor, and I won’t have to worry about them.”
A word on Lionel Sanders
Skipper also fired a shot across the bows of crowd favourite Sanders, who is trained by Iden’s brother Mikal. “Sam Long and I rode pretty hard in Chattanooga, and with 30 miles to go knew the race was between us. We just kept pulling turns and I think we opened up to 6-7mins. It was game over.
“Sam blew up after the first lap [of the run] and I got a split saying I had 8min over Lionel. I ran 2:45 on a hilly, humid course, so Lionel would have had to run 2:37 to beat me – and he was never going to do that.”
Will the Norwegians fall short?
Back to Iden and Blummenfelt, it’s not only the bike and run where Skipper believes they have their work cut out. Despite both competing on the short course World Triathlon Championship Series, he also has doubts their swim is up to scratch.
“With his ITU background, people say Gustav will be a front pack swimmer. But I don’t think that’ll be the case because if you look at a lot of his races, when it’s been competitive, he’s missed the front pack.
“At the 70.3 worlds he was a minute down, so against Jan Frodeno and Alistair Brownlee in St George, there’s no way he’s going to make the front pack. Alistair is not going to be taking that swim easy and Gustav hasn’t got the take-out speed, so will get blocked and he’s not quick enough to get on their feet.
“I also think it’s 50-50 on whether Kristian makes the front swim pack. So, they [the Norwegians] are going to have to do some work [on the bike] and it all depends how tactically astute people are. If I was on the bike in Florida, I wouldn’t have been towing Gustav around like Lionel did. If that was me, I’d sit up and say: ‘If you want to win this race, you’ll need to do some work.’
“Tactics will be important in St George. It’s not about riding loads of watts and towing people round. It’s knowing when to put the power down, who you need to be with, who you’re confident in outrunning and what gaps you need.”
As for his own chances, having won both Ironman UK and Ironman Chattanooga in 2021, plus running a 2:39:35 marathon to finish second in Ironman Switzerland in September, Skipper believes becoming the first British male to win the Ironman World Championship is not beyond him.
A course that bites back
“I’m not too bothered what others think because it doesn’t matter once the race starts, but I’m definitely going there for the top spot,” he says. “I think it’s going to suit me. I’m looking forward to getting out there before the race and riding the bike course. That’s the most important aspect for me. I’m hoping it’ll be hard enough to break the race up, but not too severe to favour the climbers.
“It would be perfect if we can take the climbs in the big ring, pushing decent power. That way I can take it at a speed that won’t suit the lighter triathlete, but there’ll also be no real draft benefit when sitting 12m behind. I’ve heard it can be windy too. So if you get some nice crosswinds coming in to split it to pieces, that’ll be perfect.”
The run course will be undulating with around 100m less ascent than Ironman UK, and Skipper believes that will suit him too.
“It looks like there’s a draggy climb on each lap,” he adds. “If people have gone too hard, the climb can help make them blow up. If it’s flat they can knock the pace down, recoup and nurse it through.
“The climb at Ironman UK is not that hard, but if you’re on the edge, you can walk and lose minutes – that’s what happened to [then leader] Sam Laidlaw last year.” Laidlaw would eventually finish runner-up, after Skipper ran 22-minutes faster on the marathon.
We’ll find out whether Skipper’s views come to fruition on Saturday 7 May, when the first Ironman World Championship of 2022 takes place. Having been re-scheduled from Hawaii in October, triathletes will officially compete for the 2021 title. A second Ironman World Championship of the year will then be held in its usual time slot in October.