Last Weekend Now: Wet and Wild Down Under, a World-Class Field for Roth, and Lionel Loves the Internet

A short-course star shines in his first try at the 70.3 distance at home. Plus: Place your bets now for Challenge Roth and Lionel's Super League debut.

Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

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

It’s not easy for any sport other than football to remain relevant during the biggest week of the NFL season, but triathlon somehow managed to do just that. We saw some incredible early season racing from familiar names two weekends ago, and Challenge also made some commotion with the announcement of the pro field for Roth, which looks to finally rival Kona as the marquee 140.6-mile event on earth. And arguably the most popular non-Norwegian male pro triathlete in the world got plenty of feedback on social media for a video posted on social media about how he doesn’t give a hoot about what anyone thinks about him…on social media.

Birtwhistle Wins on Debut, Salthouse Shines in Tasmania

One of the wettest and wildest triathlon locations in the world proved to be the perfect location for the 70.3 debut of one of the fastest runners on the World Triathlon circuit. Jake Birtwhistle—who hails from “Tassie”—needed every bit of his brilliant run speed to eek out the win, catching the leaders with 5K left to run before winning by just 15 seconds on February 5.

Speaking the day before the race, Birtwhistle said he’s merely dipping his toes in the 70.3 waters this year while his main focus remains solely on finally getting Australia back in the medals at the Paris Olympics. His half-marathon split of 1:10:18 was impressive but hardly earth-shattering. Most importantly, it shows that the extra distance won’t be a problem when he makes long-course racing his full-time job.

Were it not for Birtwhistle trying his hand at the distance, Aussie Mitchell Kirby would’ve had the first win of his eight-year pro career. Instead he settled for the runner-up spot, which is still the biggest result he’s posted. Caleb Noble rounded out the all-Aussie podium, just 40 seconds behind Kirby.

In the women’s race, Ellie Salthouse continued her dominance in this distance in the Oceania region (she also does quite well in North America). She finished last season with a win at 70.3 Melbourne and now kicked off her 2023 campaign with a victory. It’s the 20th win of her pro career, all of which have come over 70.3 miles. In a sport where specializing is becoming the exception and not the norm (thanks, Norway!), Salthouse is as specialized as they come.

Fellow Aussie Grace Thek is as laser-focused on 70.3 as Salthouse, and while she hasn’t had quite the same level of success, she’s raced her way into the top 50 of the PTO World Rankings by competing in almost entirely 70.3 events around her corner of the globe. She finished just a minute behind Salthouse in Hobart to finish on the podium for the sixth time in her last 10 races. Aussie Penny Slater rounded out the top three with just the second 70.3 podium of her career.

Roth announces world-class pro field

In not-so-great news for Ironman, it looks like they may no longer host the biggest event in pro long-course triathlon. Last month I wrote that Challenge Roth had an opportunity to steal away the title of “Super Bowl of Triathlon” from Kona, given that both men and women will be competing in Roth this year. Now it appears Roth will be the marquee coed event of 2023, even though the PTO still has a trick down its very deep pockets.

Challenge Roth went a little deeper than it typically does with appearance fees, and the result is a field that is almost as top heavy as Kona during a typical year. The women’s race is particularly intriguing, headlined by defending Roth champ Anne Haug, defending Kona champ Chelsea Sodaro, defending GOAT Daniela Ryf, and Laura Phillip, who is the second-fastest woman ever to cover 140.6 miles. The only one faster—Chrissie Wellington—did so in Roth and posted on Twitter that she could see her record falling on June 25.

The women’s field will be rounded out by Fenella Langridge, Laura Siddall, Ruth Astle and Lisa Norden, and then a whole bunch of German athletes you and I have never heard of. Basically, at the very top, it’s only missing Lucy Charles-Barclay and Kat Matthews. I imagine the PTO will be able to get all these women together over the 100K distance, but it won’t carry the weight of Roth, and certainly won’t have the same atmosphere at the finish.

The men’s field is nearly as robust, with defending champ Magnus Ditlev returning as the favorite. With the only two men ahead of him in the PTO World Rankings focused on Paris 2024, Ditlev should soon make it to #1, but he’ll face strong competition from French super cyclists Sam Laidlow, who got the better of him in Kona and will try to do so again in his Roth debut.

Two-time Kona champ Patrick Lange will be back in Roth, where he finished a distant second to Ditlev a year ago. Despite running five minutes faster, Lange got to the electric finish stadium nine minutes after Ditlev. He’ll have to be more competitive on the bike this year, and it won’t be easy as a number of the strongest cyclists in the sport are also in for Roth: Joe Skipper, Daniel Baekkegard, Andreas Drietz, and Ben Kanute will all be pushing to get to the front, so it may take a ride faster than Ditlev’s 4:01 from a year ago to reach T2 in the lead.

Kona may still have the best women’s race of the year, and Nice will probably be the best 140.6-mile race for men in 2023. But those are different weeks on different continents. At the iron-distance, no single event will rival Roth. The competition between Challenge and Ironman is great news for pros. Ironman hasn’t put up much money for appearance fees over the past 10 years (something it used to do quite a bit of). I imagine there’s a reason Charles-Barclay, Matthews, and Jan Frodeno are missing from the Roth start list, and hopefully it’s because Ironman Frankfurt made an offer they couldn’t refuse.

RELATED: Photos from 20 Years of Challenge Roth

Lionel doesn’t give a F

In non race-related news, America’s favorite Canadian, Lionel Sanders, was the talk of triathlon social media for a few days after an expletive-laden video resurfaced following the announcement that Sanders would be racing the Super League Arena Games in Montreal. In the video, which was originally posted on Sanders’ YouTube channel last year, the almost-always-friendly Sanders explains, not so eloquently, that he doesn’t give a f*** what anyone says about him on social media. He repeats this sentiment so many times that it becomes very clear that he really, really gives a f*** what people say about him on social media.

I didn’t have a problem with the video other than it looking awkward. But that’s part of Sanders’ personality, and this sport needs more personality. Canadians just aren’t good at swearing. It comes off as forced. Americans are awesome at it—particularly those of us who grew up in cities with large Irish-American populations.

It came off as so forced that Sanders was seemingly saying something nearly every professional athlete feels: That they care deeply what other people say about them, because that’s human nature. And that’s OK. Kristian Blummenfelt is open about spending his very limited free time consuming every ounce of triathlon social media. It’s entertainment and motivation for him. It elicits a positive outcome.

Maybe that’s the case for Sanders as well. He seems to thrive off of training and racing angry. He needs a chip on his shoulder, because he’s not nearly as talented as the Norwegians and the rest of the kids coming up these days. He needs to manifest a different way to win big races—which he’ll probably never do. And I hope and think he’ll read that. Because he really, really gives a f*** what’s said about him on the internet.

RELATED: Lionel Sanders and the Art of the Sprint Finish

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.