Who Ya Got? Triathlon Fantasy Matchup #2
We tap two experts to debate the age-old question: “Who would win if…” This month we look at long-course legends, speedy swim/bikers, short-course monsters, and more.
Welcome to the second installment of “Who Ya Got?” Each month in this column, we’ll choose two experts to debate tri fantasy matchups with former world champions, current pros, athletes outside of our sport, and even celebrities. This month we’ve asked pro triathlete and commentator Alicia Kaye to debate with former race director and former president of USA Triathlon, Barry Siff. They’ll argue the undercards first, then the celebrity matchup, then square off in the main event at the end. Be sure to weigh in on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!Section divider
Undercard 1: Peak Leanda Cave Vs. Current-Day Lucy Charles-Barclay (70.3)
“I got Leanda”
Leanda was one of the most dominant females in the sport, ever. Her resume is only missing an Olympic medal, but that does not mean she didn’t have tremendous success over Olympic-distance racing. I watched her, in person, pass a collapsing Barb Lindquist in 2002 in the finish chute at the ITU Short-Course World Championships in Cancun.
She is a phenomenal swimmer and could swim on the feet of Sara McLarty at ITU events—which very few female triathletes could do. In a 70.3, Leanda would likely swim on Lucy’s feet, though I do think Lucy could pull away in a full-distance swim, thanks to her experience as an open-water swimmer.
Leanda and Lucy may ride together, but my intuition is that Leanda would out-transition her thanks to her short-course racing experience and create a gap early in the bike that Lucy couldn’t close. Leanda won many races from the front with her nose in the wind, and while Lucy also likes to win this way, she tends to get caught and passed by athletes with short-course racing experience fairly early in the bike in a 70.3. Lucy is an incredibly consistent rider, but went long VERY young and doesn’t have that same ability to burn a few matches to respond to moves.
Leanda was an exceptional runner and would likely outrun Lucy by 90 seconds to two minutes in a half marathon. If I were a betting person, Leanda would win by about four minutes. Over a full distance I think this race would be much closer.
“I got Lucy”
Leanda Cave was the first woman to win both the Ironman 70.3 and Hawaii Ironman World Championship in the same year—2012 (only Daniela Ryf has done the same since). In 2010, she was second and third in 2007. Lucy Charles-Barclay stormed to the top echelon of long-distance triathlon in the last three years: second at the Hawaii Ironman World Championship three years in a row, and second at the 70.3 World Champs in 2018. A drafting penalty at the 70.3 Championship led to a fifth place in 2019.
While Leanda was a tremendous swimmer, there has been no one as strong and consistent as Charles-Barclay—a former pro swimmer—and Leanda will want to get off the front on the bike. Cave’s last two 70.3 swims were right around 26:00, while Lucy blistered a 23 flat in 2018 and 25:23 in 2019—a minute ahead of the pack. I would see this prowess leading to a minute lead out of T1.
Leanda was a great cyclist and, by working with two or three other women, she should be able to stay within striking distance of Charles-Barclay. Interestingly, while the latter has proven herself as an equally strong cyclist, Charles-Barclay just began riding in 2014. We could certainly be seeing even more improvement there.
Coming off the bike, Cave will work hard to overtake a fleet-footed Lucy Charles-Barclay, but I think she’d fall short. Lucy has run 1:20 in each of the last 70.3 Championships, while Cave ran a 1:23 in 2010 and 1:29 in 2012 (note: 2012 times were very slow due to extreme heat in Las Vegas). The “current day” Lucy Charles-Barclay is only getting better, and I’d have to give her the edge, head-to-head.
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Undercard 2: Peak Peak Alistair Brownlee Vs. Simon Lessing (Olympic Distance)
“I got Brownlee”
My triathlon career was long enough to get to watch both of these athletes race in person, and a part of me would really love to be able to move the hands of time and have these two athletes race head-to-head; however they competed in very different times.
Both of these athletes are known to be very consistent across all three sports during their peaks. However, Simon was dominant 10+ years before Alistair was beginning to climb the ranks. Men’s short-course racing took a major turn after the 2012 Olympics, and it had a lot to do with the Brownlee brothers and Javier Gomez. You could no longer stay away as a swim/biker, and you were sure as s*** not going to catch up on the run if you couldn’t swim: I think from the gun Alistair would be gone, and Simon would not be able to do much about it.
That said, if you were to put Alistair back into the time of racing in the ‘90s, he could have swam and biked with Craig Walton and held off the field that way. But if you were to put Simon in today’s ITU races, he’d be dealing with 70 guys who can all swim just as good, if not better than him, and still run 30min for 10k. Even in the heyday of mid ‘90s ITU racing, 31min would be the fastest 10K split. The sport evolved; it got better. Kids like the Brownlees specialized younger and have no weaknesses, and now much of the entire men’s field is this way, and I’m not sure those dominant in the sport 20 years ago could be dominant today.
“I got Lessing”
Simon Lessing was arguably the greatest male Olympic-distance triathlete in history. After all, he won five ITU World Championships and broke the Olympic-distance triathlon world record with a ridiculous time of 1 hour, 39 minutes, 50 seconds in 1996 at the ITU Triathlon World Championships in Cleveland. He was an automatic in the very first ITU Hall of Fame class. Then, Alistair Brownlee came around, and the title of “greatest ever” suddenly became up for debate.
Brownlee has no weaknesses and, in fact, is near world-class status in all three disciplines. Pushing the pace from the gun, Brownlee’s foot speed is virtually unparalleled in our sport. He has run an open 10K in 28:32, and sub-30 off the bike.
This slugfest would unveil itself quickly, as Lessing could not let Brownlee get away at all in the swim, given Brownlee’s strength and propensity to blister the bike and never be seen again. Thus, they exit the swim and T1 close enough that they are together on the bike, and we have our own ITU/World Triathlon version of the Iron War in ideally hot and humid conditions.
Lessing, well aware of Brownlee’s foot speed, together with a much more technologically advanced bike than he was using back in the day, pushes the bike for much of the 40K. Brownlee, who intended to do the same, smiles a lot and routinely remarks to Lessing how impressed he is, playing his usual mind games; Lessing, known for his own brand of brash personality would have none of it.
They enter T2 together and, essentially, Brownlee says, “See ya’.” He takes off at full speed to make an immediate statement. But, Lessing, known for his brilliant tactics, steely demeanor, as well as his running speed, settles in and counts on a Brownlee meltdown—which we have witnessed in the past in extremely hot conditions. Just 200 meters from the blue carpet, signs of the meltdown would occur, as Lessing shifts into another gear and passes the tiring Olympic and World Champion just 10 meters from the finish line.
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Celebrity Matchup: Peak Lindsey Vonn Vs. Peak Ronda Rousey (Olympic Distance)
“I got Vonn”
DISCLAIMER: I am a huge MMA fan, have seen “Rowdy” fight live, and would be cheering loudly for her. That said, as a journalist, I will remain impartial … just like CNN and Fox.
The pre-race stare down and intimidation factor goes to Rousey. She will dramatically and aggressively run to her start on the beach, while “accidentally” bumping into Vonn. Vonn, however, is not easily intimidated. Having won three Olympic medals and four World Cup Championships as a fearless alpine ski racer, Vonn would simply smile at Rousey, displaying a comfortable level of confidence.
Vonn also would take this challenge a bit more seriously than Rousey, focusing her three-month build-up on technique, rather than just strength and innate athletic ability. Therefore, I would see Vonn exiting the water ahead of the MMA fighter and two-time Olympian in judo. (Rousey was the first American woman ever to earn an Olympic medal in judo, a Bronze in 2008.)
That strength, brute force, and sheer determination will do Rousey well on the bike, as she will overtake Vonn easily, and come into T2 with a nice lead. But, with only a few months training for this race, Rousey will have unlikely learned the fine art of pacing, and a well-conditioned, less-aggressive Lindsey Vonn would take the win not far from the finish line.
“I got Rousey”
This is tough because both of these women were so dominant in their very different sports. As a downhill skier, Lindsey Vonn will have high power for short bursts, but she’ll be short on endurance. And Ronda—while also very powerful—has trained her endurance system since her matches often lasted much longer than it took Lindsay to fly down a hill.
I’m also going to go out on a limb and say that due to all the knee injuries Lindsey has had, she’s probably spent some time in the pool cross training. After researching whether or not they could swim, I found mostly photos of them in tiny bathing suits and not a whole lot of evidence of lap swimming—however, Ronda did mention in one article that swimming is also a part of her cross training. I would estimate that Lindsay, while comfortable in the water, might lose two to three minutes.
While it doesn’t appear that either of these athletes rode a bike for training, they’ve both used one to warm up for workouts. Both would probably pick up biking very quickly, but Lindsay would be way more comfortable on a TT bike than Ronda, due to her expertise staying aero on skis. On a flat course with lots of time trialing I could see Lindsey being very strong and comfortable in her TT position, but if it’s a hilly course, I could see Ronda closing some time on the climbs. On the run, I think Ronda’s experience as a former boxer with a lot of run cross training would smash Lindsay—likely running 10 minutes faster over a 10K, making it an easy win for the MMA star.
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Main Event: Current-Day Jan Frodeno Vs. Peak Mark Allen (Long Course)
“I got Frodeno”
Jan is already considered the best male triathlete ever in the sport of triathlon. To have captured all three world titles multiple times—including Olympic gold—is pretty unprecedented (and after 2020, I hate even saying that word).
Jan would have put four to five minutes into Mark Allen in the swim and would likely transition much faster than Mark with his short-course experience. Comparing their bikes is tough, but historically there is about a 30-minute difference in their bike splits—of course there have been massive technological and aerodynamic advances made to bikes since Mark’s peak racing days. Even if I were to mentally put Mark on a wildly fast bike, I do not see him closing any time on Jan there. Jan has proven himself to be one of the most consistent riders of the iron distance and has made very decisive moves late in the bike when he needs to (Kona 2019, for instance).
While Mark would run well, likely in the low 2:40s, it wouldn’t be enough to close what would likely be a 10-minute-plus deficit off the bike and put him anywhere near Jan. In my mind, Jan wins by 12-15 minutes. That said, I’d love to see this match up as both of these athletes were performers, and I think Mark would have killed himself to stay with Jan, or would have otherwise evolved his strengths to compete closely with the German.
“I got Allen”
I am not sure we will ever see—or can even conceive of—a more exciting iron-distance race than 1989’s “Iron War” with Mark Allen versus Dave Scott. But, a mano-a-mano clash between “The Grip” and “Frodo” would certainly have the makings of all-out warfare.
Jan is a phenomenally consistent top swimmer in any race he does, and his 47:31 swim split in 2019 is just off the course record in Kona by one minute. Mark, meanwhile, had a 51:17 split when he battled Dave in 1989. I would project Jan taking out the swim at a ferocious pace, hoping to gain a two-to-three-minute advantage over Mark into T2. Mark would need to be on the heels of a strong pack to keep within that two-to-three-minute spread.
Again, Frodo’s spectacular 4:16 bike split in 2019 reflects where I have to believe he will make his big statement. When Mark set the course record in 1989, his split was just over 20 minutes slower at 4:37. However, if technology has played a big role anywhere, it’s on the bike, and with Jan off the front alone, Mark would be in a strong train of solid riders—allowing him to be within six to eight minutes into T2, where the real race will begin.
The amazing 2:40 marathon Mark ran in 1989—on the original and tougher Kona course—still remains the greatest run in Ironman history in my mind. On top of that, Mark had several amazing come-from-behind Kona victories, including making up 14 minutes on the run in his win over Germany’s Thomas Hellriegel in 1995—his last of six Kona Championship wins.
No one has ever come close to the mental tenacity of Mark Allen, and I see this as the defining factor in this epic battle. Jan would be racing from the front to stay away from Mark, while Mark would be stalking his prey, mentally putting the pressure on yet another German. I see Mark Allen—once again—taking the lead on a slowing Jan Frodeno on the slight hill leading to the top of Palani, just two miles from the finish, and winning this classic contest.