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2021 in Review: A new era for Triathlon

As the final big race of the year at Clash Daytona comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of the 2021 season and review some of the major performances and developments that point towards this year being the beginning of a new era in Triathlon. Whether it be Blummenfelt and Duffy’s Olympic + WTCS doubles, Lucy Charles-Barclay’s first world title, the first complete SuperLeague Championship series, a revolutionary approach to broadcasting Triathlon at Challenge Miami and The Collins Cup or the announcement of some novelties to arrive next year, 2021 has undoubtedly been a season to remember.

Olympics & WTCS Doubles

Heading into Tokyo 2021 Bermudian Triathlete Flora Duffy had been dealing with the title of race-favourite since 2016. Overcoming two full seasons of injury to find her form again heading into Tokyo, Flora’s victory using her textbook tactics showed just how strong she is. Everyone knows what’s she’s going to do, but no one can stop her from doing it. Front pack swim, small group on the bike, run solo to the win. Despite hitting a career highlight and lifetime goal, Flora held her form through to the end of the season to seal the WTCS world title, including another win on the new eliminator format in Montreal. With countless world titles to her name and now the Olympic Gold Medal, Flora was rewarded with a national holiday back home in Bermuda and she continued to show her form during a cameo appearance at SLT Malibu that resulted in a win and her 6th Xterra world title in Maui overnight.

Norwegian superstar Kristian Blummenfelt had marked the Tokyo Olympics on his calendar back in 2011 when he was just getting started in the sport of Triathlon. Fast forward 10 years and Blu was on the start-line of undeniably the most competitive men’s Olympic triathlon in history. At least 10 athletes had good reason to believe they could win the title on their day, and a further 10 had strong chances for a medal. Just like Flora Duffy, Blummenfelt dominated the race and played his cards perfectly to take home the win. Working hard on the first two laps of the bike Blummenfelt and a few other athletes dragged the second pack of swimmers back into contention with the front group. Blummenfelt then disappeared until the 8.5km mark on the run, perfectly managing his nutrition and body temperature in the process, at which point he ran away from the field to take the Gold medal. Kristian backed this up with a win at the Edmonton Grand Final to seal his first WTCS world title all whilst starting his prep for an Ironman debut in November. We’ll speak about how that went a little bit later.

New Races and New Broadcast Standards

The 2021 season was peppered with several new races, each accompanied by progress in the broadcast quality of Triathlon. This started with Challenge Miami on the Speedway in February, continued with the SLT Arena Games in Rotterdam and London, and culminated with The Collins Cup and the SLT Championship Series in the summer. Each race benefiting from heavy investment into media and broadcast, the event organisers were able to test and develop new practices that in time will improve the broadcast quality (and commercial value!) of Triathlon.

Spearheaded by Michael D’Hulst (we spoke to him earlier this year here) and Macca, the SLT Arena Games and SLT Championship Series both demonstrated how exciting and engaging short course triathlon should be for TV. Short races, exciting athletes, varied race formats with good commentary and expert analysts. Other than the on-course motorbikes occasionally causing drafting (can we see drones or fixed cameras next year please!?) and the short-chute cheating us fans of a few sprint finishes the SLT Championship Series showcased some incredible racing and the development of the series bodes well for the summer.

After getting a teaser for the new standard of live broadcasting for Triathlon at Challenge Miami in February, the PTO stepped it up again at The Collins Cup this summer in Samorin, Slovakia. Years in the making, The Collins Cup pitted the best middle- and long-distance triathletes in the world against each other in a head-to-head-to-head format similar to The Ryder Cup in Golf. Europe vs USA vs Rest of The World over 100km of fast and furious racing (2km-80km-18km). Above and beyond the new race format, the PTO delivered a high standard of broadcasting with dedicated cameras for each race, behind the scenes insights, live data & predicted results all with a strong commentary team. Triathlon has been left wanting in the past for better broadcast quality, and whilst The Collins Cup was far from perfect, it undeniably demonstrated that the sport is on the right track towards quality broadcasting!

Other new races this season included the indoor SuperLeagueTriathlon series sponsored by Zwift. Combining a Pool swim with a Turbo bike ride and a treadmill run. Take away Covid and pack out the stadium with fans and this could be a brilliant product. Its potential has been recognised already by World Triathlon who confirmed last week that they are working hand in hand with SLT to deliver a World Championship for the Arena Games next year.

The PTO World Rankings

It’s no secret that the PTO World Rankings have left athlete and fan’s opinions divided this season. The points scoring system is unclear and somewhat inconsistent from one race to the other. Nonetheless, the implementation of this World Ranking is a brilliant step forward to make the sport credible for the layman but also to make it credible from a commercial standpoint whereby sponsors and broadcasters can more easily identify the best athletes in the world without having to resort to just the one world championship race.

An article was published recently on this website proposing a new format for the World Rankings going forward, you can read it here. Hopefully a more robust and transparent points scoring system will be implemented in the future.

Long Distance? Short Distance? No, it’s Triathlon!

Three boys from the little seaside town of Bergen, Norway have put their stamp on the global triathlon landscape this year. They finished 1st, 8th and 11th at the Tokyo Olympics, took home a 70.3 World Title, Ironman Distance record, WTCS World Title and countless race wins over all distances stretching from February to December. Kristian Blummenfelt, Gustav Iden and Casper Stornes have proven this year that it is possible to combine short and long-distance racing at the same time in a Triathlon career.

On the women’s side, Lucy Charles-Barclay and American phenom Taylor Knibb did the same on the women’s side. Charles-Barclay competed in the Zwift Arena Games, WTCS races over the sprint & Olympic distance, Super League Triathlon Malibu and also won her first World Title in St. George at the 70.3 World Championships. Taylor Knibb was equally versatile, dominating her first 70.3 on a road bike in Boulder, posting the best time for the women at The Collins Cup, winning multiple WTCS races and finishing on the podium at the 70.3 World Championships as well.

Demonstrating their versatility once again overnight were the newly crowned Xterra World Champions, Flora Duffy & Hayden Wilde. Both won Olympic Medals in July and concluded their season with a world title, the Nth one for Flora and first for Hayden.

Triathlon performance across all these distances & formats relies overarchingly on a strong aerobic base, and the athletes above have proven that if you have that strong base you can tweak it in any direction you want in order to perform across multiple race formats in quick succession.

New Technology on the Horizon

Any triathlon enthusiast will tell you that drafting is a plague that affects amateur and professional long-distance triathlon. It’s always been a case of prisoner’s dilemma, and race officials have often struggled to referee it properly and fairly. In November, an announcement was made that should hopefully eliminate drafting issues across the board. Race Ranger (See full article here) revealed their revolutionary technology that will allow race officials to police drafting objectively and consistently across all race.

Two small sensors are placed on every competitor’s bike, permitting referees to track drafting infringements remotely at all times, but also acting as on-bike referees for the athletes whereby they are warned by the sensor if they enter the draft zone or fail to complete a pass in time. Whilst questions evidently remain about the commercial viability of a widespread roll out, the potential of this technology to change the dynamics of long-distance triathlon is huge and hopefully we see it rolled out in professional and amateur racing as quickly as possible.

What next?

After such an exciting 2021 how could 2022 be better? Well, listen here! In 2022 we will have two Ironman World Championships, another 70.3 World Championship in St George, a wide open WTCS for both the men and the women, the fist SLT Arena Games World Series, a bigger and better SLT Championships Series and that’s not all. In late-spring / early-summer we will have four of the biggest names in triathlon trying to break two of the most iconic time barriers in the sport. Kristian Blummenfelt and Alistair Brownlee will try and go under 7hrs for the Ironman distance, and Lucy Charles-Barclay and Nicola Spirig will try and break the 8hr barrier as well. On top of all this, the new breed of German and Danish athletes over the 70.3 distance are likely to up their game, Daniela Ryf & Patrick Lange will be looking to regain their crowns and there will be countless other athletes such as Mario Mola & Javier Gomez looking to bounce back and be on top of their game in 2022 after a tough season in 2021. Enjoy the off season because it won’t last long, we will all be back soon for an unpredictable and exciting 2022!

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