It was also clear that the triumph wasn’t solely about the 24-year-old – born in England, but who has lived in southern France for most of his life – and that his family were integral to the success.
So, asking Laidlow post-race whether winning the Ironman World Championship was a dream come true, the answer was also to be expected: “And more,” he explained. “People keep asking me to put it into words. All I can say is I wish everybody could feel as I feel right now.”
The victory not only made Laidlow the youngest-ever male winner of the title, but also the first Frenchman. For a country so steeped in the sport, it had been a long time coming.
“I’m super grateful to have had this opportunity in Nice,” he continued. “I think it’s great for French sport. Historically we’ve not done so well in iron-distance, but this is a new era and I hope it motivates a generation to come and push straight to long course.”
Executed to perfection
Despite being pitted against a star-studded field including three-time Ironman champion Jan Frodeno hoping to end his career on a high, Laidlow never looked fazed as he seized control of the race from the outset.
Initially, it was his surge part way through the first lap of the swim that helped craft a relatively small, but ultimately decisive gap on the dangerous Patrick Lange and Magnus Ditlev – who would both later join him on the podium.
“You can’t win the race on the swim, but you can certainly lose it,” Laidlow reflected. “If Patrick was with us [on the bike] he would have probably won today.”
Then it was an intense effort early in the 112-mile bike leg, even before they’d made inroads into the race’s much-hyped and longest Col d’Ecre climb that helped build his ascendancy.
“I knew I had good legs on the bike, but with Ironman you never know,” he said. “I rode to the maximum I thought I was capable of and took some risks thinking I might blow up on the last climb. But the lead just kept growing and growing.
“I averaged 339 watts on the bike here, and I had a good thing going on at the start with Clement [Mignon], who has lived here.
“I was going up the first climb at 450 watts and he just came flying past me. I said to him: ‘Let’s push for 30mins and see where this gets us. The first hour I averaged like 370 watts and I’m 74kgs.”
Laidlow had a 5min advantage off the bike, and a further 7min to Lange, and despite the German running a world championship record 2:32:41 marathon, the home hope never looked troubled as he completed four laps of the Promenade des Anglais. But if he looked assured, appearances can also be deceiving.
“The marathon is just horrible, it’s always horrible, and until the last 100m you never know. I still thought Patrick was right behind me and it wasn’t until I got on the final straight that I knew I had it.”
Hitting form at the right time
While Laidlow’s second place finish in Hawaii last year – sandwiched between the Norwegians, Gustav Iden and Kristian Blummenfelt – was a surprise to many, this year he came into the race as more of a known quantity.
But it was also following a hit-and-miss season where despite two wins over the middle distance, his robustness was in doubt.
Dropping out in Lanzarote with nutrition issues while leading, a calf tear while duelling with Ditlev on the marathon in Roth, and another DNF in the PTO Open in Singapore following a bout of covid just three weeks ago, put question marks over whether he could perform here.
Yet those questions that were answered emphatically by a “career-best performance by far”, as splits of 47:50 (swim), 4:31:28 (bike) and 2:41:46 (run) resulted in a win by almost 4min from Lange. “To work 20 years towards something just makes it extra special,” he added.
Laidlow’s father and longtime coach Richard couldn’t have been more proud of his son’s success, which also extended to training partner and fellow Frenchman, Arthur Horseau, running through the field with the day’s third best marathon to finish sixth.
“It’s amazing,” Richard said. “Obviously, he’s had a messed up season with a lot going on, but at the end of the day I want Sam to have one good race every year. Given it’s this race, it’s absolutely brilliant.
“We’ve been here since he came back from Singapore so it was good for us to get a solid block of training in with him and in the last week we’ve pulled it right back.”
Richard said the team could have done without the enforced rest because of the Covid infection, but believes his son benefitted from the vitality of youth in recovering quickly.
“It didn’t help at all, but we caught it straight away, and someone at that age is going to recover quickly – the same as his calf tear [in Challenge Roth]. Plus, his nutrition and everything else is dialed right in.”
A family affair
The victory automatically qualifies Sam for next year’s Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, which remains the holy grail for the Laidlows.
“The goal was to win the world championship, but to win it in Kona is the big thing. Nice is not Kona, I feel today that everything is great, but the town is bigger than the event here.
“In Kona, it’s the other way around, and it’s the same in Roth, where the town really embraces the event. I don’t feel here does that yet. But the course here is really good, a bit dangerous, but that’s part of racing.”
The Laidlows’ tight-knit family group extends to mother Michelle, Sam’s partner Flo, and his 15-year-old brother Jake, who might soon be pushing Sam in training harder than he was pushed on the Promenade des Anglais.
“We have just taken him out of school this year,” Richard said. “We homeschool him and therefore he can train with us the whole time. He’s a really, really good swimmer, naturally a very good runner and very sporty. I think he’s following Sam’s footsteps, so we’ll see.”
As for the secret to their success, Richard has a simple message.
“We support them, and for me training is about absorption. If they are not absorbing the training they are not going to improve, and it’s about getting the right absorption of training sessions each time.”
As for now, while Richard continues to plot the path of the Laidlow dynasty, in typically offbeat style, Sam has other things on his mind. “I might just end my career here,” he says tongue-in-cheek. “For now, I’m just going to go pole dancing.”
Top image credit: Donald Miralle for Ironman