Will 2021 be seen as a vintage year for triathlon? It was certainly a fascinating one. As the UK waited out a second lockdown, it looked as if we might experience a wipe-out to match 2020.
Yet, when the season did belatedly crank into action, some of the highest quality racing we’ve ever seen – both domestically and internationally – ensued.
The Olympic and Paralympic flames were finally lit, and while the Ironman World Championship will have to wait until next summer after a further postponement there were plenty of other triumphs worth celebrating.
A highlight on UK soil was the Leeds WTCS event, where a bumper crowd packed into Roundhay Park as the sun shone on a weekend of epic racing.
Elsewhere, established event organisers such as the Outlaw and Castles series swung into action, plus a host of dedicated, local race directors did what they do best. Triathlon was up and running again, shaking off its jelly legs after being trapped on a Covid cycle for 18 months.
On the pro side, the Professional Triathletes Organisation and Super League Triathlon further established themselves as forces to be reckoned with, helping bankroll the professionals and introduce exciting concepts.
Triathlon continued to innovate everywhere. Race Ranger is an ingenious anti-drafting system that’s currently undergoing testing in a bid for fairer sport. Goggles now have in-built screens so you can see your swim pace on the go, and improved aerodynamics, bike and shoe tech sent race times tumbling.
On the men’s side Frodeno clocked an all-time fastest 7:27:53 for that Tri Battle Royale, but that would later be toppled in Cozumel (see below), where Sweden’s Sara Svensk stopped the clock at 8:22:41. It means Chrissie Wellington’s 8:18:13 from Challenge Roth in 2011 holds on for now.
As always, there were epic feats of endurance from more than mere mortals. Topping it off was James Lawrence. The Iron Cowboy, who’d previously competed 50 iron distance tris in 50 states in 50 days, returned to do 100 (that turned out to be 101) closer to home in Utah on successive days.
In the UK, 220’s editor Helen was an able Sherpa for an ominously named 666 challenge, as three friends completed six full distances in six days in typical British weather in the South West to raise funds for The Abel Foundation that aids the sufferers of Mitochondrial Disease.
Charity support and inspiration is just an example of where tri turned up trumps again. Another is in gender equality, where the solid foundations of equal pay and profile put in place at inception continue to hold true – particularly apparent when placed in context with a sport such as women’s cycling which is fighting for parity.
Triathlon has more to improve on diversity, but more than its share of trailblazers. Our October issue showcased Sika Henry as the first African-American Ironman professional and Sam Holness as an autistic triathlete from London trying to make a career from swim, bike and run.
Esports a spectacular success
Few positives have come out of the Covid pandemic, but in triathlon we’ve seen Super League Triathlon’s experimentation, improvisation, and willingness to give anything a high-energy blast – all hail the Arena Games.
The indoor racing actually kicked off in 2020, but in London and then Rotterdam this year it went up a level, included paratri for the first time, and even managed to make avatars jogging around a virtual world look exciting.
More exciting still is that the nascent concept in partnership with Zwift has gained momentum to keep improving, and World Triathlon has now jumped on board to launch an esports World Championship Series.
Olympic glory continues
Alex Yee’s face said it all. Jonny Brownlee quipped he’s more successful than his brother, Alistair, (and that he’ll put off Olympic retirement), and the shared joy of best buddies and training partners Georgia Taylor-Brown and Jess Learmonth couldn’t be suppressed.
This has to go down – for the third consecutive Games – as another tri triumph for Team GB. For all the disrupted build-up, the British men failing to get three individual spots, and the injuries for the women, when it came to the crunch in Tokyo, they delivered.
Yee bested everyone save Kristian Blummenfelt over 10km run in the men’s individual contest, Taylor-Brown shook off a puncture in the final stretches of the bike to hold her nerve and take silver in the women’s.
A few days later, the inaugural two-woman, two-man mixed team relay topped it all. By the time Yee took the metaphorical baton, by his own admission, he was anchoring the three best legs ever seen at the distance, and couldn’t throw it away.
That he didn’t. Cause for much celebration whether in the sauna of Odaiba Bay or one of the thousands burning the midnight oil and having their spirits warmed in the UK.
Paratri is a Paralympic hit
The Tokyo Paralympics also saw the second edition of paratriathlon take place, this time with eight categories rather than the six seen in Rio.
Under tight Covid restrictions, what it lacked for spectators it more than made up for in drama.
Britain’s medal successes all came in the PTS5 categories where Lauren Steadman reversed the finishing order from Rio to beat USA’s Grace Norman to gold and Claire Cashmore won bronze. On the men’s side, George Peasgood grabbed silver.
The women’s wheelchair division was making its bow and had the mother of all close finishes as USA’s Kendall Gretsch caught Lauren Parker on the line after an incredible blue carpet sprint.
More great news for paratriathlon followed with the announcement that its programme will be extended to 11 divisions for Paris 2024, where hopefully thousands of spectators will be in attendance too.
The boys from Bergen sweep all before them
When Kristian Blummenfelt bulldozed to success in the opening World Series race in Yokohama and then backed it up with a World Cup win in Lisbon, it was clear he would be a challenger for Tokyo gold.
That it was clinched in such rip-roaring style, powering away from Britain’s Yee over the 10km was remarkable, but while being just the fifth male triathlete to stand atop an Olympic podium was the highlight, it was only the beginning.
The 27-year-old went on to clinch the World Triathlon world title in Edmonton a month later, and put the cherry on the cake with the fastest iron-distance time ever recorded, a staggering 7:21:12 in Cozumel on his debut at the distance.
If Viking dominance wasn’t exerted enough by Big Blu, Gustav Iden was far more than a helpful wingman. Iden defended his Ironman 70.3 world title in Utah with aplomb, posted a time only bettered by Jan Frodeno in the Collins Cup, and with his own debut Ironman of 7:42:57, including a 2:34:51 marathon, ended the year as the Professional Triathlete Organisation’s No 1 ranked performer.
Bermuda celebrates with Flora Duffy Day
Bermuda has a population of fewer than 65,000, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a citizen who doesn’t know the name Flora Duffy.
The 2016 and 2017 World Triathlon world champion has battled injuries in the past three seasons, but found form and fitness at just the right time to fulfill her Olympic ambitions.
Duffy’s victory in Tokyo looked nailed on as soon as she left T2, as she justified her tag as the favourite to bring home her country’s first ever Olympic gold medal.
She’d go on to add the world title in Edmonton as she and Blummenfelt became the first two triathletes to achieve the Olympic-World Triathlon world title double in the same year.
Then, for good measure Duffy hopped back on her beloved mountain bike to claim her sixth XTERRA world title in Maui.
The success was honoured with the announcement of Flora Duffy Day in Bermuda on 18 October as a public holiday.
The Collins Cup takes place… finally
It’s been promised, discussed, and derided for years, but the Professional Triathletes Organisation finally got its flagship event away in Slovakia, stoking the regional rivalry between the best professional long-course triathletes in Europe, the USA and the rest of the world.
Set in the endurance mecca of Samorin’s X-BIONIC Sphere it would be Europe who’d triumph in the head-to-head-to-head match-ups that pitted competitors against each other for bragging rights, a fancy silver trophy and no small appearance fees.
Was the event itself a triumph? It was certainly a good start. Although Europe came out on top, the racing was exciting and closer than many expected, and the athletes loved it.
The broadcast had mixed reviews, but as the PTO were at pains to point out, this is just the beginning.
With its ranking system – albeit fiendishly complicated – paying out millions in end-of-season funds and a glut of big-money major-tris promised, the future of the pros and promotion of our sport has never been in such a healthy place.
Super League is something special
Super League Triathlon (the original outdoors version) held court for September, with a four-week stint with its high octane roadshow going from London’s Docklands to Munich to Jersey to Malibu and a new team format featuring Cheetahs and Rhinos.
It was beautifully produced, full of drama, short chutes, confusion, DQs and reinstatements, and there was barely time for anyone to catch breath.
In the end there was more cash in the bank for the Brits as Alex Yee and Georgia Taylor-Brown came out on top, and captain Tim Don’s Eagles were flying.
LCB is a tri force of nature
When Lucy Charles-Barclay lit up Hawaii in 2017 on the way to the first of three runner-up spots at the Ironman World Championship, it was clear that here was a precocious talent prepared to step onto any stage.
In 2021, she just took that attitude to the next level. Charles-Barclays began by popping up in the Super League Triathlon indoor Arena Games in London and almost winning it.
She then returned to the venue for the British Olympic 1,500m trials in the pool, and almost won that too, before getting on the start-list for the World Series event in Leeds – her first standard distance triathlon – and finishing fifth.
LCB was a winner at the Collins Cup, taking the European Ironman 70.3 title and then to cap it all, a first Ironman 70.3 world title in Utah where she dominated from start to finish with a dream of a performance.
A week later she was competing in Super League Tri in Malibu and a week after that was completing the London Marathon in 2:47:53.
Just listing what Team LCB has achieved this year is exhausting enough, being out there getting it done is something else. The most versatile triathlete on the planet right now.
She has a Sub-8 attempt on the cards for 2022, but will she aim for the Ironman worlds of the Olympics, or something entirely different? Her biggest challenge might be making the choice.
Top image: © World Triathlon