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Last Weekend Now: Duel in St. George, Agelessness in Cancun

The first major weekend of racing in North America this year—and it showed who's fit, who's not, and who to watch in 2021.

Last Weekend Now is your Monday morning rundown of what’s happening in pro triathlon, brought to you with commentary by Brad Culp. (Ed note: So yell at him if you don’t like the comments.)

Triathlon is back. At least on this side of the world. We had the first major weekend of racing in North America in more than a year, with the Ironman 70.3 North American Championship in St. George, Utah, and Challenge Cancun in—you guessed it—Cancun. The most anticipated race of the spring lived up to the hype in St. George, as Lionel Sanders and Sam Long waged an epic final-mile duel, and Daniela Ryf looked more dominant than ever before.

RELATED – Photos: 70.3 St. George Hosts 2,800 Athletes

The Gritty Duel in St. George

Not to take away from the greatest triathlete on earth, but let’s start with the men’s race between two of the sport’s biggest personalities. St. George is a course where toughness, grit, and strength matter more than raw speed, and Sanders and Long aren’t lacking in those areas. Ultimately it came down to Sanders having just a bit more in the tank in the final mile, pulling away to win by just five seconds.

They’re remarkably similar athletes. Both are among the worst swimmers at the highest level of the sport. When it comes to the two disciplines that actually matter, though, they’re two of the best in the world—even if they don’t always look pretty doing it.

Long has been outspoken about viewing Sanders as his biggest rival and the man he most wants to beat. At eight years younger than Sanders, he has time, but then again the 33-year-old Canadian is still just reaching his prime. If Sanders is ever going to win Kona, the next couple of years might be his best shot. Whereas the 25-year-old Long is wisely content focusing on this 70.3 distance for now. We should expect a few more epic battles between these two in the coming years, especially when they’re able to find a course that’s actually challenging.

Absent from the results is Daniel Baekkegard—another boisterous personality whose name I should learn how to pronounce because he’s on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the sport. The 25-year-old from Denmark would have finished third, but he received a penalty for failing to complete a pass on the bike and didn’t serve it. He claims he was told in T2 that the penalty no longer stood, which if true would be a massive failure. If not, something was lost in translation. He was informed of his disqualification for failing to serve the penalty with just two miles left to run. If he had actually served the penalty, he still would’ve finished in the top five—perhaps even top three. Ultimately, he ended up missed out on a decent payday, plus some PTO points that could help get him onto a very competitive European team for the Collins Cup in August.

Instead it was another Dane finishing third, as the sport’s newest über-biker Magnus Ditlev turned in the fastest ride in a field full of very fast riders. At just 23, Ditlev looks to join Baekkegard to form a powerful Danish duo with world championship potential for many years to come.

Ryf was dominant in her victory. Photo: FinisherPix

Speaking of world championship potential, Saturday was a bad day for any women who think they have some this year. Daniela Ryf is back, she’s healthy, and she might actually be faster than ever after 18 months away from racing. The difference between Ryf and the rest of the world became even more apparent on a course as challenging as St. George. The gaps to some of the top triathletes on earth were astonishing: Four and a half minutes ahead of runner-up Jeanni Metzler, who had one of the best races of her career; More than five minutes up on Emma Pallant, who has been untouchable this season; Nine minutes ahead of Challenge Daytona winner Paula Findlay and former 70.3 world champ Holly Lawrence.

RELATED: Outpouring of Support for Daniela Ryf as the World Champ Opens Up About Her Sexuality

The only way Ryf won’t win her ninth and tenth world titles this year is if she has a really bad day. If she’s at her best or anywhere close to it, she cannot be beat at either the Ironman or Ironman 70.3 World Championship this year. Oh by the way, 70.3 Worlds will be held on this very course in September. Hopefully it’s a good race for second, and hopefully Ironman will continue to put the 70.3 World Championship on world championship-worthy courses like St. George.

Career Longevity in Cancun

While most of the top 70.3 athletes on earth spent this weekend getting a sneak preview of the world championship course, the sport’s most decorated world champ opted for the Mexican Riviera instead of the Utah desert. Twelve-time world champ Javier Gómez has been spending time training in the heat in Cozumel and decided to pop over to Cancun for a little pre-Tokyo tune-up. The 2012 Olympic silver medalist has yet to officially qualify for Tokyo, but he should lock in his spot at the World Triathlon Series race in Yokohama in two weeks.

The men’s podium in Cancun combined for 122 trips around the sun, making it surely one of the oldest podiums in the history of the sport. It also shows that racing ITU (I’m still not calling it World Triathlon) for a really long time is a good way to extend one’s triathlon lifespan. Along with Gómez, runner-up Ruedi Wild and third-place Andy Potts spent their entire twenties racing short and often, and now they’re able to make a decent living racing longer with some longer breaks in between.

Perhaps most impressive in Cancun was Potts, who is trying his best to prove that Tom Brady is not the best athlete to graduate from the University of Michigan in 1999. At 44, Potts might not be a contender at triathlon’s Super Bowl, but he’s doing something we’ve only recently seen done by Craig Alexander. For the most meticulous and durable of athletes, turning 40 is no longer synonymous with retirement.

The men’s podium at Challenge Cancun. Photo provided by Challenge Cancun.

Winning the women’s race was Argentina’s Romina Palacios Balena, whose name is quite pleasant to say and who you probably know nothing about. With 100 starts, she’s competed in more World Triathlon (there, I did it) events than just about any triathlete on earth, but she’s been focusing on the half-distance since narrowly missing out on the 2016 Olympics. She’s also relocated to Boulder to be coached by Julie Dibens, who also coaches Tim O’Donnell. It appears to be a good move for Balena, as Cancun marks the biggest win of her 15-year pro career.  She did so in convincing fashion, ahead of American Annie Kelly by four minutes, all of which came on the run. Mexico’s Palmira Alvarez, who is more Instagram famous than triathlon famous, rounded out the podium.

The women’s podium in Cancun. Photo provided by Challenge Cancun.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated Baekkegard chose not to serve the penalty. That has been corrected to reflect the confusion in T2.