WTCS Leeds: what did we learn from the dramatic weekend?

There can hardly ever have been a more eventful World Series event than the weekend’s fast and furious encounters in Leeds’ Roundhay Park. Tim Heming brings you 9 takeaways from the action…

Alex Yee winning WTCS Leeds

1. Lucy Charles-Barclay shows why she might just be the most popular triathlete in the world right now – and probably the most versatile too. There was so much to admire in the 27-year-old’s hastily arranged short course debut, from the express-paced swim to the way she held it together technically on the bike to a 10km run split that saw only Beth Potter of the British women go quicker. Charles-Barclay says the fire of Olympic ambition is still lit. A decade ago it was all about the swim. After Sunday, we can add the bike and run too.

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2. So, those British women. Just how good? Other than the final yards of the run, Jess Learmonth looked as if she’d never been away as she made her comeback from injury to record a ninth podium in the World Series and underline why she’s a medal contender in Japan. We’ve touched on Charles-Barclay already, but Sophie Coldwell, in third, and Beth Potter, in seventh, also had their best World Series results.

Behind them Sian Rainsley in 13th and Olivia Mathias in 25th had debuts that showed the production line of GB talent just keeps rolling. Non Stanford didn’t have her best day, but still finished top 20, and we didn’t even get to see Vicky Holland or Georgia Taylor-Brown, who pulled out with niggling injury and illness, and hopefully are keeping the powder dry for Tokyo.

3. Alex Yee shows winning attitude to go with the talent. The 23-year-old has long since turned potential into performances at elite level – from his British 10km title in 27:51.94 in 2018 to second place in the World Series in Abu Dhabi following a first World Cup win in Cape Town in 2019. But after Sunday’s victory, he now surely heads for Tokyo alongside Jonny Brownlee with the aura of being a World Series winner too. It was the final step to make Yee a bona fide Olympic gold medal challenger. He described it as “the best feeling ever”, but you could already see that from his face at the finish.

4. You can’t get away with roughhouse tactics in the swim. At least you can’t with an event of this profile, and with a move so obvious. Alistair Brownlee said he was “embarrassed” by the disqualification for forcefully submerging American Chase McQueen in the swim. As a pugnacious exit on the big stage, it wasn’t quite the Zinedine Zidane headbutt of the 2006 World Cup final, but if this race was meant to be Brownlee’s last hurrah in short course racing – and having admitted after three months of injury that he needed “a miracle” to go much further – it was a sobering way to exit.

5. Britain’s chances of a third Olympic men’s place are over. Whatever the permutations – and it would have taken a top three finish in Mexico – Tom Bishop is not on the start-list for the final race of Olympic qualification, so for the first time ever, Team GB will not be sending three men to the Games. Racing five times in five weeks to secure the points to make the top 30 in the rankings and earn a third spot for GB was always a tough ask for Bishop, but for a triathlete of his talent it was by no means impossible.

In truth, he’s not looked near the form to achieve it. Twenty-second place in Yokohama was followed by a DNF in Lisbon and 40th in Arzachena. It was better in Leeds, but 16th place wasn’t the top 10 desired. Facing more than 30 hours of travel to one of the hottest destinations on the circuit, it was decided to put his health first. Questions will be asked as to how Britain, with arguably the strongest triathlon programme in the world and a wealth of talent at its disposal, let it come to this.

The pandemic played its part, hindsight is all-seeing, but it’s hard to think there won’t be regrets about not chasing qualifying points hard enough, early enough to avoid this scenario.

6. How the world has last changed since Covid. Two years ago at Leeds, Katie Zafares was placed second to Georgia Taylor-Brown and it almost looked a blemish on a season where she won five World Series races including the Grand Final in one of the most dominating years on record. At the weekend in Leeds, still world ranked No 1, the American saw rival Taylor Spivey disappear up the road and with it probably her last hopes of an Olympic place. Had Tokyo been last year, Zafares would have started as race favourite. She lost her father recently, which no doubt gives perspective that this is only sport. But that said, it can still be a cruel one at times.

7. In contrast to the women, the men need to swim faster. And bike with more purpose too, if it’s not going to come to a running race in Tokyo. If it does, then Sunday’s top two of Alex Yee and USA’s Morgan Pearson will take some stopping. Jonny Brownlee termed it “fighting not swimming” in the water, but unless someone is able to grasp the nettle and force a breakaway in Tokyo, expect the run to be all-important. In previous years it has been Slovakian Richard Varga or South African Henri Schoeman taking on the pace. Varga is struggling to qualify, Schoeman was absent in Leeds. Brownlee will be hoping someone steps up to make it ridiculously hard. Yee will be hoping they don’t.

8. British paratriathletes can return with more golds from Tokyo than Rio.  Team GB registered one gold medal on paratri’s Paralympic debut in Rio 2016. It was delivered by Gloucestershire’s Andy Lewis, but while Lewis’ class has not been carried through to Tokyo, Leeds highlighted how Jonny Riall’s squad remains on course for the top step. The best chances probably come through Lauren Steadman and Claire Cashmore, who finished one-two in the PTS5 class ahead of Paralympic champion Grace Norman in Roundhay Park, and Dave Ellis and his guide Luke Pollard, who won the PTVI division. Michael Taylor (PTS4), Alison Peasgood and guide Nikki Bartlett (PTVI) and George Peasgood (PTS5) will also all fancy their chances in Japan.

9. Finally, triathlon needs flagship events like Leeds. Perhaps the whole of British sport needs Sunday afternoons like we experienced in Roundhay Park, with 4,000 boisterous spectators, and every podium-getter commenting on the wall of noise that lifted them around the course. There could hardly have been greater testament to the success of the British Triathlon organised event than no-one lamenting the lack of a city centre finish of previous years. The new course with its ups and downs provided as much drama as we often see in a whole season of World Series racing. Long may it continue.

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Top image credit: World Triathlon