It’s finally time to put fingers to keyboard, and make my pre-race selections for the Pro Men’s race at the delayed 2021 IRONMAN World Championship in St George.
With the recent injuries, withdrawals and illnesses, I’ve likely saved myself several re-writes by not putting these together a few weeks ago. That doesn’t make it any easier now though!
While we’ve got the official Male Pro start list on the site, we know that (at least) Joe Skipper, Javier Gomez and Andi Boecherer won’t be racing. Hopefully the various colds and bugs floating around won’t leave any others unable to start on Saturday.
Absent friends but quality remains
When a race is missing the athlete many regard as the GOAT, Jan Frodeno, then the absence of the reigning and three-time IRONMAN World Champion can’t be ignored.
That is the nature of elite sport however, and rarely in a sport as demanding on the body as long-distance triathlon, do we get every possible contender to the start line. While Frodeno will be missed, he was far from guaranteed to even start as race favorite in St George, the demands of Utah being notably different to those of the ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii.
How will the race pan out?
In my Pro Women analysis feature, I noted the material impact that the absence of Lucy Charles-Barclay looks set to have on the women’s race. While there are some tactical thoughts to put forward here too, I don’t see the men’s race race being impacted to the same degree, by those not racing.
Swim – All change? Probably not
My recent interview with David McNamee gave a good insight into the swim. His thoughts being that it is the absence of Josh Amberger, perhaps, which could see the swim gaps being a little bit more compressed than usual.
“With him out, it could then be a bigger pack than usual. The people that are usually borderline… with Josh not there, they could make the front pack. Depending how big that group is, it could shape the dynamics of the first 80-90km on the bike.”
Without Josh, Jan and Javier, that typical ‘front’ pack does have some of its usual firepower missing. That said, the swim depth of the men’s field is strong and still likely includes amongst it Alistair Brownlee, Kyle Smith, Daniel Bækkegård, Florian Angert, McNamee, Max Neumann, Braden Currie, Sam Laidlow etc.
The main points of interest will be
Bottom line, for me at least? Someone will make the front pack who wasn’t expected to. The reverse will also happen. But – pre-race sickness showing through aside – the swim won’t significantly change the race, given the challenge of the bike and run courses ahead.
Bike: better be feeling strong
When you have a marathon still to run, the 180km bike likely won’t decide the race – but it will have a big impact – if only to rule out who won’t win. Nobody will be arriving in T2 fresh, having had the chance to play tactical group dynamics for four-and-a-half hours.
Referring back to McNamee’s take:
“There will be these three to five-minute efforts on climbs, but then the ability to recover from them. I think a few guys will sort of ruin their race by following the more explosive characters and not be able to recover from the efforts. I’ve ridden the course a few times – it’s sort of like IRONMAN UK, in that it doesn’t matter if you are at the front of the race or the back, to get up the climbs is still a bloody big effort.”
The bulk of the hills come in the second half of the race – when fatigue is already in the legs – which will surely leave very few ‘groups’ on the road by the time T2 comes around. If there is any respite, the final section into St George is downhill. A possible recovery opportunity? Maybe.
Run – Who’s the strongest?
My gut feel is that athletes will be arriving back to their transitions bags in ones, twos and threes rather than a ‘lead pack’ / ‘chase group’ situation we’ve sometimes seen in Hawaii. It might also be a mistake to judge too early who has the advantage – with pretty much everyone expecting some ‘epic explosions’ at some point, if pacing, patience and nutrition isn’t fully dialled.
The shape of the race might look very, very different at the midpoint of the marathon than it did starting the run.
IRONMAN St George Verdict
While I joked at the start about holding off on this piece until late, I did actually write and publish a big-picture look at the favorites back in February. There, I went for Gustav Iden as my pick for the top – and despite a few concerns – I’m going to stick with that now.
Having spent the last 10+ years writing frequently about the statistical difficulty of winning the IRONMAN World Championship (in Kona at least) on debut, adding Gustav to my selection of Kat Matthews for the women is a tough one.
Still, I think the course suits him. He has shown calmness and patience on the big stage, is tactically aware and making his moves at the right time. I think he also has the run legs – especially on hills – that if needed, there’s another gear that frankly he hasn’t had to call upon in middle and long-distance racing to date.
Where to put Alistair Brownlee? If a 100% fit, healthy and patient Brownlee turns up and executes perfectly then I think he has the potential to win by five minutes and make the world look frankly silly for ever doubting him.
Craig Alexander called him ‘maybe the best pure swim/bike/runner we have ever seen’, and a course which includes the sort of hills that he eats on a daily basis in and around Leeds that will break plenty of others, plays into his hands. Hills on the run? He started as a fell runner…
And yet… 11 months to the day, Brownlee hobbled across the line with a major ankle injury which would need surgery at WTCS Leeds, Tokyo 2020 hopes over. He’s proven to be superman many times over where recovery is concerned, and will surely be ready to take on the advice of many – including Chris McCormack – to play his tactical cards a little less recklessly.
I think and hope he will do that on Saturday, with the course itself doing some of the work for him, but I’m just edging taking the consistency of training over a longer period of Gustav, to be one step too far this time. Roll on Kona, however.
Who to pick for third? I really am torn here. I think I’m going to go with Kristian Blummenfelt, but not without reservations. All of the reasons why Big Blu could be an odds-on favorite are out there and we’ve written about many times before.
Seeing him ride the entire course, seven days prior to the race, and what looks to be not far from race pace – backed up with a big run 24 hours later – does feel like pushing the limits.
Now, hands up, I’m neither an elite athlete or coach – and who are we to doubt the Norwegians, based on their results? But based on Kienle’s famous quote of, “there’s a fine line between fit and f$^%ed”, that does feel line pushing things to the limit.
The flip-side of course could be that their headroom in terms of level above the opposition – remember that ‘like taking candy from kids’ reference? – is to such an extent, that such training is nothing compared to what they will unleash on race day.
Throw in a new, prototype bike, and acknowledgment from their coach (below) that Gustav is more settled equipment wise, and I make Blummenfelt my pick for the second fastest athlete from Bergen on Saturday:
“In terms of Kristian for example we’re still in that phase where we are exploring the position on the bike.
“So we still have work left to do there – there are minor adjustments that you would normally see over the course of his season. Gustav is more dialled in, I would say.”
Don’t miss this race
While they are my podium picks, honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if the final results are very different. But, as Tim Don said earlier the week, ‘you’ve got to have an opinion’ – even if only for people to laugh at your after the fact!
Expect big performances from Sanders, Currie, Bækkegård, Long and many more. It should be a brilliant race.