Britain’s Jess Learmonth today produced a ruthless performance at the inaugural Super League Arena Games in Rotterdam, winning every leg of her Triple Mix event to take the title ahead of compatriot Georgia Taylor-Brown and reigning Ironman world champ Anne Haug.
The men’s race witnessed a much tighter affair, with rising German star Justus Nieschlag preventing the Spanish superstar and record five-time ITU world champ, Javier Gomez, from adding another title to his reinforced mantlepiece.
Super League Triathlon has never been shy of mixing it up and re-interpreting the tried (some have said tired) and tested ITU World Series template, with today’s event at the Zwemcentrum in Rotterdam (city of the 2017 ITU Worlds), Netherlands, featuring SLT’s Triple Mix format as part of the Rotterdam Summer of esports.
The Triple Mix consists of the first stage being the classic swim-bike-run. The second stage offers a bike-run-swim race, before the final stage’s run-swim-bike showdown.
The distances for each were a swim leg of 200m place in an Olympic-sized pool, a bike of 4km aboard a Tacx Neo2T smart trainer and the run being 1km on self-powered curved treadmills (studies have shown these to be 30% tougher than a conventional treadmill). The power and speed of the athletes was then demonstrated as a visual race via the Zwift platform.
In something of a coup for the organisers, the reigning Ironman world champion, Anne Haug, was on the start line in a return to short-course racing for the German star. Two of Haug’s major rivals were the Brit pairing of Georgia Taylor-Brown and Jess Learmonth, and the Netherland’s home favourite and regular SLT podium athlete Rachel Klamer.
The racing kicked off at midday BST on Sunday and Learmonth, against a strong international field of 10 athletes, led from the get-go in the Triple Mix format. Learmonth ended the race with the maximum 30 points out of 30 having topped every leg of the Triple Mix. Her nearest challenges were Dutch favourite Rachel Klamer on 23 points and Belgium’s Valerie Barthelemy on 22. Taylor-Brown finished with 19 points and Haug ended with 9.
What it takes to win the first SLT Arena Games! "@Jess_Learmonth deep in the pain cave"!
“I’ve never done anything that hard before and it’s more the thinking of different things, such as picking up your goggles and remembering I had to swim after the treadmill run [in Stage 3]. You always need to be thinking of other things,” said Learmonth on her debut Super League experience.
“I was apprehensive as I haven’t raced since the 2019 Tokyo test event and I didn’t know what to expect. It’s amazing that they [Super League] have put this on for us and we really appreciate it because I know it was difficult.”
The men’s event also has a major draw in the presence of Gomez on a Super League line-up for the first time since the series debut at Hamilton Island in 2017. The Spaniard faced his old ITU and Olympic Games nemesis, GB’s Jonny Brownlee (fresh from posting a 5km PB of 13:46mins during 2020), as well as South Africa’s run powerhouse Richard Murray. Rising German stars Jonas Schomburg and Justus Nieschlag were the dark horses for the Rotterdam title.
After a fast and frenetic women’s event dominated by Britain’s Jess Learmonth, the men’s event was a much tighter affair with split seconds separating the champion from the podium placers.
Following three breathless Triple Mix race formats – for competitors and online viewers alike – it was Germany’s Justus Nieschlag who emerged victorious in Rotterdam, edging Portugal’s Vasco Vilaca and Spain’s Javier Gomez to the inaugural Arena Games title.
The conventional swim-bike-run tri format of Stage 1 saw Jonny Brownlee – as we’ve seen countless times over the years – dictating the tempo on the 4km bike, with Gomez and dropping off the back. German talent Jonas Schomburg, running barefoot to save transition time, dominated the 1km on Zwift to produce a winning margin of 7secs over Brownlee and 8secs over Portugal’s Vasco Vilaca by the finale of Stage 1.
Lots of athletes going barefoot after Jonas Schomburg's Stage 1 victory. @jonny_brownlee still in his running shoes and it's costing him.
The second stage provided bike-run-swim action, and the pack of 10 emerged off the bike together. Now it was a split between those wearing shoes (notably Brownlee and Gomez) and those without on the curved treadmill run. Yet it would be Justus Nieschlag who’d emerge as the leader in the pool and take the 10 points for the Stage 2 title win ahead of Schomburg and Le Corre.
Schomburg would begin Stage 3’s run-swim-bike format as the man to beat, and Murray would take the battle to him at a 19km/hr pace. Onto the 400m swim and Vilaca was first out of the water, 1sec ahead of his Iberian rival Gomez and 4secs ahead of Schomburg. While the women’s race was a done deal by the final discipline of the day, for the men it was all to play for on the 4km bike.
With a kilometre to go, Vilaca and Gomez was inseparable with the latter’s proven class coming into play as the day progressed. Yet it would be Vilaca who would take the Stage 3 title ahead of Gomez by just 0.25secs.
The remaining eight athletes were grouped in a pack and the overall honours were up for grabs. With just 200m of the racing to go, Nieschlag edged to the front of the group and pipped Schomburg at the last to take the Arena Games title by a matter of milliseconds to cap an enthralling hour of racing. The final placings would see Nieschlag on 24 points, Vilaca on 22 and Gomez on 20 points.
“I didn’t expect to be on the podium overall, so I’m really pleased,” stated Gomez at the finish. “It’s not the favourite distance of an older guy like me but it was really fun as well.
“I raced a French Grand Prix event yesterday and the trip to get here was horrendous, with everything going wrong,” added the Spaniard. “I slept for four hours and I felt it most in the first triathlon, but I’m proud to have been competitive against some of the best guys at these shorter distances. It’s been a tough time for everyone in the sports industry, so being able to race was amazing and all of the athletes really enjoyed it.”
AN INDOOR FUTURE?
Indoor elite triathlon may not be new, as evidenced with this Triathlon de Bordeaux classic from 1993 that sees tri legends Mark Allen, Simon Lessing and eventual winner Brad Beven duking it out in the velodrome, as well as the more recent Liévin Triathlon Indoor Festival in 2019.
And yet, in this socially distanced Covid 19-era, the inaugural SLT Arena Games felt entirely different; a melding of virtual and real-life racing with a twist on triathlon’s usual swim, bike and run format.
By all accounts, it was a tremendously taxing operation to deliver, involving social distancing (it’s the first time we’ve seen the podium triathletes wear masks and shake imaginary hands), quarantine policies and looming lockdowns. For the online viewer, however, it was worth the entertainment and lesser-spotted display of triathlete prowess in 2020, with the formats ensuring that it didn’t just become a procession on the bike and a race only on the run.
So, where does it go from here? Super League have confirmed to 220 that they are in talks with other potential venues over SLT Arena Games events, and the race-starved athletes would certainly be interested.
“I’m also really thankful to Super League for giving us this platform to race… it’s a perfect format,” was Haug’s judgment on the day.