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Recalled: The Evolution of World Cup Racing

World Triathlon Cup racing might not ring a bell, but it's produced some of the biggest names in tri.

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Last weekend, the postcard-perfect coastal town of Bergen, Norway transformed into a hotbed of triathlon for the first-ever World Triathlon Cup race in the country. Thousands turned out to see hometown heroes including Kristian Blummenfelt and Gustav Iden as well as other champions of the sport tackle the draft-legal sprint distance.

While the buzz in Bergen was as electric as any other major triathlon, World Triathlon Cup competitions are actually considered  “second-tier events” in the sport. With fewer ranking points—and less prize money—the World Cup is designed for up-and-comers, offering a platform for athletes to gain entry to the World Triathlon Championship Series. Not quite the minor league version of Major League Baseball, but it’s close. And yet, unlike minor-league baseball, as we saw in Bergen, big names will occasionally pop into one of these events. In the past, World Cup races were once stacked with all of the biggest draft-legal stars in the sport.

In fact, in its heyday, the World Cup series was one of the most hotly-contested events in triathlon. Launched in 1991, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) created the World Cup series with the intention to land triathlon a coveted spot in the Olympic lineup. The goal? To showcase the sport with as many athletes from different countries. Spearheaded by then-ITU president Les McDonald, the group decided to set up a series with events on nearly every continent, which, they hoped, would demonstrate the global popularity of the sport. Plus, they surmised, providing a year-long slate of races with set distances and prize money would better allow athletes to plan travel arrangements and training blocks.

So, in 1991, the ITU set out to host 11 events in eight countries, starting with St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands on May 5 of that year. With a hefty $50,000 prize purse, the Caribbean race drew triathlon stars of the day with names that we still recognize, like Mark Allen, Ken Glah, Mike Pigg, and Karen Smyers of the U.S., Australian Greg Welch, South Africa’s Paula Newby Fraser, and Canada’s Carol Montgomery.

Twenty-seven-year-old Pigg and 26-year-old Montgomery took the wins for the men and women, respectively, in the then-non-drafting event, with camera crews from ESPN documenting the drama for a special 60-minute show. Pigg, who outsprinted Welch to win by a lean, called the experience a “starting point for something big” and “one of [his] biggest highs in the sport.”

From there, the 1991 series traveled to Colombia, Ireland, Canada, France, Beijing, Las Vegas, and Mexico. Brazil’s Leandro Macedo and Smyers amassed the most points to claim victory for the overall series wins that inaugural year. (The ITU also hosted a single world championship race, apart from the World Cup series, first launched in 1989.)

And it was only just beginning: Proving its potential to attract eyeballs across the globe and inject excitement into the sport, the World Cup series picked up major sponsorships from Coca-Cola and Reebok in 1992, and its sweeping success lead to IOC members voting in favor of adding triathlon in 1993 to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

The momentum of the World Cup series continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, launching the careers of the likes of Australia’s Emma Snowsill, who competed on the series for five seasons before winning her gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, as did her husband, Jan Frodeno, who raced in his first World Cup in 2003. 2020 Olympic Champ Flora Duffy also got her start in World Cup racing, finishing 25th as a 19-year-old in her debut among the elite women in 2006. And before he became an Ironman and Olympic world champ, Blummenfelt spent time on the World Cup series, starting at the age of 20.

RELATED: Recalled: Blummenfelt’s slow burn to success

The dynamics of the World Cup series shifted in 2008 when the ITU began focusing on developing the World Championship Series (WCS), a “super series” for the best-of-the-best draft-legal specialists in the sport—a move aimed at increasing global TV coverage. The six-race WCS would culminate in a Grand Final, eliminating the single-race world championship format established in 1989.

Though demoted to a second-tier event, the World Triathlon Cup series has settled into its role as proving ground for future draft-legal stars and Olympians, and if Bergen is any indicator, World Cups can still bring the excitement. For those like 18-year-old Tilda Månsson, who took the tape in the women’s elite race in Bergen for her first World Cup win, history could prove correct, and Månsson may be very well one to watch in the build towards Paris 2024—and beyond.

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