Sam Long is nearing the end of his download on his dramatic – somewhat improvised – European tour, and we’ve reached the nadir, the moment where he’s struggled into transition after climbing Alpe d’Huez on his TT bike with its ‘one-by’ gearing system (in other words, just one big chainring on the front) and he’d had enough.
“Then they gave me a 5-minute penalty, and it completely destroyed my willpower,” says Long. “That was the ultimate low point of the trip, but also the turning point. Well, it couldn’t get any worse. At some point you’ve gotta hit rock bottom, and then you can go up.”
The reason for Long’s penalty was not having a transition bag. We’ll deconstruct that shortly, but it’s the kind of incident that typified how the lovable ‘Big Unit’s’ Euro misadventure had been going.
Lows, highs, and “little FUBARs” in Europe
What’s more encouraging though is that despite the DNF that followed, the 4 hours and 5 minutes of grinding up the 3,200 meters of ascent of the Alpe D’Huez Long Course bike leg hasn’t deterred the 26-year-old from finding perspective enough to laugh at his predicament.
Perhaps more practical too, is that he’s proved he can use some of that frustration as motivation. The following weekend Long was at it again, this time in Gdynia, Poland for an Ironman 70.3 race, posting a 1-hour 58-minute bike split and 69-minute run, and breaking Jan Frodeno’s course record.
“I wanted to show I’m fit and at a high level. The prize money was horrible, but I honestly didn’t care. I needed to show a level of performance to myself, so it was very meaningful because of all I’d gone through. It wasn’t the biggest race or most competitive field, but all around, my best performance.”
Long describes much of what’s happened in the past few months as a series of “little FUBARs.” Those unfamiliar with the acronym may do their own research, but a rough translation is when events don’t quite go to plan.
But gearing and penalties aside, it started with a more serious incident. Back in late April, after an unbeaten start to 2022, Long was preparing for the Ironman World Championship in Utah. He would be a huge home favorite over familiar terrain he’d performed well on in the past.
“Nine days before St. George, I was hit by a car. I actually thought St. George went very well for me given the accident [Long finished 15th], and because I’d already planned the European tour, including Challenge Roth, I decided to stick with it. But I was on the back foot for a while struggling to perform at the level I had been before.”
Long’s European racing started competently enough in Challenge Walchsee in Austria where he was runner-up to Germany’s Frederic Funk – defeated by 2 minutes after picking up a 1-minute penalty at the dismount line. Then it was the much-vaunted Challenge Roth in Germany.
“I honestly have no clue what happened at Roth,” he admits. “I think it connected back to the crash. I overworked in training trying to get confidence, fitness and strength back, and then pushed too hard and was overtrained.” Long would finish in sixth place in 8:07:07. Not the result he was looking for, but not as one social media commenter suggested afterwards “time to give up the day job.”
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What went down in Alpe d’Huez
And what happened next? “Then I went to Alpe d’Huez and got a 5-minute penalty for not having a transition bag!”
Cutting through the confusion it appears that the transition bag in question was needed for the wetsuit in T1, but he’d mistakenly stowed it inside his post-race kitbag that was delivered to the finish – at the top of the col.
Having realized his error, Long notified officials and spent 30 minutes prior to the start trying to retrieve it. With no spares available, he was eventually told that as long as his wetsuit was folded neatly in transition before he left T1, it would be ok.
Unfortunately, by the time he’d completed the last of the 21 fabled switchbacks and racked his bike, said agreement seemed to be lost in translation and he was handed the penalty anyway.
Long might have weathered the call and continued, but he’d just climbed the mountain with 54-33 being his easiest gearing and the “strongest legs in triathlon” – a moniker arising during infamous smack-talk at the aptly-titled Bear Lake Brawl two years ago – were saying ‘No, No, No’ rather than ‘Yo, Yo, Yo’.
“In general, it’s hard when you’re in a new place, and those stresses can be magnified,” Long explains. ”I had a big problem with the one-by (gearing), which is also kind of a funny story. My TT bike was at Eurobike, Frankfurt for the week, but I was staying in Livigno in Italy riding an Émonda road bike in the Dolomites, climbing and feeling great.
“The Tour [de France] had just ridden up Alpe d’Huez so I thought I’d give the Alpe d’Huez triathlon a try. I signed up and realized I would have already given the Émonda back and would be on the TT bike.
“Any professional triathlete knows that you cannot get any bike equipment from sponsors during the Tour de France. It’s not possible – especially when your sponsors are American, you’re 3,000 miles away and you give them 10 days’ notice!”
Unable to change his gearing, Long gave it a go anyway. “I made it up Alpe d’Huez, and it was horrible. Even worse than I thought. But it was a lesson in logistics. If you’re going to travel to Europe for this long and potentially add races, you need to come with everything you could possibly imagine.”
Long was perhaps less prepared for the response he received on social media. “The comments exploded with negativity, so I logged off for 3-4 days, but that’s been a hard thing about this whole trip. I’ve opened myself up to more critique than ever before. I’ve become friends and earned the respect of a lot of the top European triathletes, but have also had people in America saying I left the US because I couldn’t win there, and Europeans telling me to go back to America and try to win there. It’s hard getting critiqued from both sides. I thought I took a big risk coming over, but one that has been rewarding and I’ve gained so much experience and learned a lot, I wouldn’t trade it.”
Gearing up for the Collins Cup – and his dream matchup
Long has just arrived in Slovakia where he will look to try and help Team USA dethrone the Europeans in the head-to-head-to-head format of the Collins Cup. Last year, Long found himself on the wrong side of a three-way match up with Jan Frodeno and Sam Appleton, and this time he’s hoping for a change of fortunes.
“I’ve learned from what happened last year. What’s best for me personally, but also for the sport, is to be put in matchups with equal abilities, It makes it better to watch and more fun to race. I think me, Magnus [Ditlev] and Lionel [Sanders] would be fascinating. We’d push each other hard and there’s no way things would be decided before the final 3km of the run.”
While the US women excelled in 2021, the US men failed to register a victory in six matchups. For 2022, as long as Long can remain in contention on the swim, the flat course and 20-meter draft rule in Samorin should give him every chance. If he can also carry the form and fire from Poland, that should see him in good stead too. As he posted on Instagram in the aftermath to that race: ‘I had no power meter and the more my legs hurt on the bike, the more it made be satisfied.’
One final point: For all the critiquing of Long’s Alpe d’Huez gearing choice, that 4-hour-5-minute split was still the second fastest in the race. Whether it’s walk the walk or torque the torque, the Big Unit can still deliver.