He’s the only triathlete the Norwegians are wary of, the foremost in the next generation of uber-bikers, and so new to the sport that he ran out of transition with his bike in the 70.3 worlds… without wearing his helmet.
Aged 25, and a towering 6ft 5in, Magnus Elbaek Ditlev is arguably the most exciting prospect in long-course triathlon and having only started his professional career late in 2019, the chemical engineer from Virum, north of Copenhagen is already winning the biggest races in the sport.
In a memorable 2022, he stepped up to full distance four times, finishing sub-8 on each occasion, including victory at the fabled Challenge Roth in one of the fastest times ever.
He’s also been in the thick of it in two Ironman world champs, and most recently won his first Ironman in Cozumel. 220 caught up with the giant, softly-spoken Dane the day after the gruelling test on the Mexican island to talk all things tri…
Magnus Detlev’s season highlights
220: Firstly, congratulations on winning your first Ironman. As your eighth race of the season and fourth full distance – including Kona – it was some performance.
Magnus Ditlev: Thank you, it was tough – and one race too many! The start was delayed by 40mins because of thunderstorms, then the sun came out. With the humidity and rising temperature it was the most extreme race I’ve ever done. It supposedly felt like 39°C.
I was pretty empty from the start, walked every aid station on the marathon, and put as much ice under my suit as I could. My girlfriend and friend gave me splits every 5-10mins on the run. I had about 2mins at T2 to Pieter Heemeryck. Pieter was running fast, but then dropped out. Then they said Andy Potts was running really fast. Then he faded.
After that Fernando Toldi was running strong. Then he blew up. And with 10km to go it was Jan van Berkel gaining. There was always someone chasing me!
220: It sounds like a tough final race of the season, but how does it feel to have won your first Ironman?
MD: It’s good, especially because my coach, Jens-Petersen Bach, has won one Ironman too and has always joked that it makes him the better athlete!
220: It also sorts out your qualification for 2023’s Ironman World Championship…
MD: That was the reason I came here. After [the Ironman 70.3 Worlds in] St George, where I performed pretty well, we thought if I could pull myself together mentally it offered a good chance to qualify.
I’ve had a long season and don’t want to race as much next year. By qualifying early it releases a lot of pressure and makes it easier to plan. There are going to be four-to-five PTO events, plus the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 worlds – all world champs-quality fields.
Magnus Ditlev’s best 7 results in 2022
- November, Ironman Cozumel, 1st place (7:50:40)
- October, Ironman 70.3 World Championship, 3rd place (3:39:51)
- October, Ironman World Championship, 8th place (7:56:37)
- September, PTO US Open, 2nd place (3:17:58)
- August, PTO Collins Cup, 1st place in match-up as Europe retain trophy (3:13:30)
- July, Challenge Roth, 1st place (7:35:48)
- April, Ironman Texas, 2nd place (7:58:11)
Why did Magnus Ditlev switch to triathlon?
220: While you only came to triathlon 2015, is it true you grew up playing a bit of football?
MD: Not just a bit – it was my whole life. I was never talented, but spent all my spare time playing football and badminton. It’s funny because I don’t watch it anymore. It’s something I’ve grown away from, except when the Danish national team is playing.
220: Can you recall your first triathlon?
MD: It was a local half-distance race in Denmark. I had no background in any of the three disciplines, so short-course racing [at a high level] was never an option for me. My biggest memory is cramping up in T2.
My father was standing on the other side of the fence telling me to stretch. I was panicking because I knew I had to run 21k – there was a lot of walking involved.
220: You also still live at home near Copenhagen. What benefits do you feel this gives you?
MD: We switch between living with my parents and my girlfriend’s parents. They are all very supportive, and make it easy for us – cooking, doing our laundry, and we don’t have to pay for an apartment.
I’ve always had a good relationship with my parents. A lot of teenagers want to distance themselves, but it’s working out nicely for me.
Magnus Ditlev on forgetting his bike helmet
220: You came third in the Ironman 70.3 Worlds – and ran out of T1 without your helmet. How did that happen?
MD: It was very impressive, right?! I have no good explanation for it. It was good that I didn’t cross the mount line. Frederic Funk heard people shouting “helmet”.
When he realised it wasn’t him, he saw me running without mine and shouted. I think I would have jumped on the bike had he not mentioned it.
220: Yet you rarely seem fazed by anything that happens on or off the course. Why is that?
MD: It’s just a natural character trait. Some people have a temper, but I’m pretty calm. It’s not something I chose, but it’s not something I want to change either. I want to stick to being the person I am.
But if you are the kind of person who is more outspoken, it’s also important to stand by that and not change.
220: You’re not the only Dane making an impression in long-course triathlon [there are six Danish men ranked inside the PTO’s top 50]. Where is the success coming from?
MD: I don’t know, but it is inspiring. Even though Daniel [Bakkegard] and I don’t train together much, we see what one another is doing. Of course, we all want to be the best Dane, but it’s not a fight. We lift each other’s performances. We also have a lot of younger athletes coming through and the future looks exciting.
MD: It’s inspiring to see what they are doing and the way I work is quite similar to the way they do it – I think my coach and I are just as scientific. But the Norwegians have more resources.
220: What was your biggest victory of the year?
MD: Winning Challenge Roth was definitely the highlight of the season – it’s only afterwards I started to realise how big a race it is. People keep mentioning it, and that’s really cool.
What makes Magnus Ditlev such a strong cyclist?
220: As well as being one of the fastest cyclists you’re constantly trying to maximise aero advantages. Is it true you received a custom-made aerobar cockpit just before Kona?
MD: It comes back to my first Ironman in Texas in April [where Magnus finished second]. On the plane home, my coach and I made a list of all the stuff we needed to fix if I was to have a chance of winning in Kona.
One of the things was to develop a custom aerobar cockpit to see if it was faster.
I worked with a Danish engineer who is involved in the Olympic team pursuit track team and a Swiss engineer who makes custom carbon units. It sounds like a simple process but takes time.
We went back and forth with plastic prototypes until we found the right fit, then made one that was more stable and tested it in the wind tunnel to see if it was faster. When it was, we began making it in carbon fibre.
My bike sponsor, Scott, understandably didn’t want to see a repeat of what happened in the Olympics [when a set of different handlebars of an Australian rider snapped on the track] and had a requirement for strength testing. So we produced two versions.
One was strength tested to destruction and the other shipped directly to Kona. The first met the standard, so I could use the other set in Kona.
Magnus Ditlev’s tips for going faster on the bike
- Ride your bike as much as possible
- Practise your time trial position so you can hold it throughout the course
- Be aware and optimise aerodynamics, understanding that it’s not just about power out
220: With disc wheels banned in Hawaii because of the crosswinds, you also rode on some eye-catching Hed Jet 180 deep-dished wheels. Did you feel any effects from the wind on the day?
MD: Not at all, and I have now raced the two events in the world where you might use this wheel because discs are not allowed in Cozumel either.
Firstly, I don’t think the winds were bad this year in Kona. Secondly, I think the limitation should be on the front wheel because that’s where the stability issue is. You have your weight on the saddle which puts weight on the rear wheel.
220: Your 112-mile bike splits were 4:01 at Roth, 4:04 at Cozumel and 4:13 in Hawaii (with a 5min penalty). Is the 4hr barrier under threat?
MD: In Cozumel, I rode the first of three laps at an average of 46.6km/h. That was a little bit above target Ironman pace but shows sub-4 is achievable and I probably could have pushed harder but didn’t want to overheat.
I’ve only raced in Kona once and I’d bridged up to leader Sam Laidlow [who split 4:04] before I got a penalty. I like to tell myself I would have been able to follow him to T2.
Of course there were some tactics involved. The Norwegians pretty much only cared about me in that race and it was evident every time I tried to make a surge, they didn’t want to let me go. Sub-4 depends on a lot of things, but I still think you could go faster.
220: Given you were unhappy with the drafting penalty in Hawaii, how would you like to see the officiating change?
MD: Either PTO or Ironman or both should educate four-to-five referees who then travel the world with the biggest events and give a consistent standard. I’m all for giving penalties but they shouldn’t change something on the eve of a world champs as they did this year and decide on no discretion at all.
If you educate the refs, they can judge if you have intention of drafting.
Can Magnus Ditlev win Kona?
220: Last year was your Kona debut. Do you believe it’s a race that you can win?
MD: Yes. That was my goal last year and it’s what I’m working towards.
Top image credit: Darren Wheeler/PTO