Would Patrick Lange’s Team Tactics Trump Van Lierde’s Old School Grit?
We tap two experts to debate the age-old question: “Who would win if…” This month we look at Kona record holders from different eras, American long-course stars, and an Olympic swimmer versus a Boston Marathon winner.
Welcome to the fourth 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 professional triathlete and commentator, Alicia Kaye to debate with executive editor and former pro triathlete, Chris Foster. 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: Ben Hoffman Vs. Peak Tim DeBoom (Long Course)
“I got The Hoff”
Tim was so dominant in Kona from 1999-2002; winning twice and getting on the podium all four of those years—crazy impressive. Ben has had some particularly impressive results in Kona in 2014 placing 2nd and in 2016 placing 4th. Both had big Hawaii performances, but I still think Ben gets the edge.
Tim grew up as a competitive swimmer and was certainly a well-known front-pack swimmer during his time at the peak of the sport, so I’d say that he would likely outswim Ben by 2-3 minutes. However, the cycling side of the sport has really elevated since the early 2000s and Ben is specifically one of the riders who has raised the bar. He is well known as an incredibly strong cyclist and would likely ride 5-8 minutes faster than Tim in an iron-distance event, giving him a couple minute buffer going onto the run.
From there, Ben has proven that he can run very well after hard solo efforts on the bikes (think: Ben’s 2017 IM South Africa performance where he backed up a 4:22 bike with a blistering 2:42 marathon to break 8 hours) and I would expect Ben to still run a sub-2:50 marathon putting him on par with Tim’s marathon times. I’d bet that Ben could maintain that 2-3 minute gap over Tim on the run, making a very long, but exciting, drawn-out American duel with Ben ending up on top of the podium.
“I got DeBoom”
Four podiums in four years between 1999-2002 is nothing to scoff at, but there’s more to Tim DeBoom’s palmares that make him a super dangerous threat to the Hoff’s bike/run combo. This isn’t just about Kona, right? Some people seem to forget that DeBoom was more than just that four-year run in Hawaii—he was a top-ranked amateur triathlete back in the early/mid ‘90s who held his dominance until the late ‘00s. In other words, we could probably put Tim DeBoom in a race today against Hoffman and still have an epic duel on our hands.
But since we’re talking about peak DeBoom—we’re probably talking about 2001 DeBoom, the one who won Kona just months after 9/11, making him the first American to take the title since Mark Allen in 1995. A year later, he’d go on to win again against a hard-charging Peter Reid.
The race would go something like this: For sure we’d see DeBoom out of the water ahead of Hoffman, but I’d put him closer to four minutes ahead of the Hoff. DeBoom is a consummate competitor, and he’d know that he’d need to get a good gap for the bike. Certainly on the bike, Hoffman has proven he can ride hard, but I think getting away from DeBoom would be tougher than he’d expect. DeBoom raced successfully at every distance from short course to long course, and he’d absolutely have a response for Hoffman when he eventually went by. While I don’t think he’d be able to stay with Hoffman all the way into T2, I don’t think he’d be able to put more than a couple of minutes into DeBoom.
On the run, DeBoom would find his stride quickly—thanks to his years of short-course experience—and be able to put Hoffman in sight by the halfway mark. From there, it would just be a matter of closing out a typical sub-2:50 marathon to seal the deal.
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Undercard 2: Flora Duffy Vs. Peak Karen Smyers (Olympic Distance)
“I got Smyers”
At her peak in the ‘90s, Karen Smyers could do it all. She won Ironman World Championships, short-course Pan American Games, and ITU World Championships in the same year back in 1995. Wrap your head around that feat. That’d be something like Gwen Jorgensen winning gold in Rio, taking a day off to celebrate (maybe), then getting back to a big Kona training block for a few weeks before heading off to the big island. It just wouldn’t happen. While everyone talks about Flora Duffy being a multi-faceted racer that could conquer any distance, Karen Smyers is the blueprint for that model who did conquer every distance—sometimes all in one year.
With that in mind, you’d almost have to throw out many of the stats between these two. Sure, Flora would have the edge on Smyers in the swim, the bike, and the run on paper, but Smyers’ work ethic would allow her to prepare and execute on any challenge. I’d expect Smyers to elevate her swim to the point where she could hang onto Duffy’s feet (assuming Duffy didn’t have feet pulling her along in this example).
On the bike, we’d see Smyers riding faster than before, given the updates in technology between today’s carbon superbikes and the beasts from the ‘90s. We’d also see Smyers’ competitive fire that would allow her to keep Duffy in sight—even if she didn’t outride her. From there, I think Smyers’ long-course prowess and her ability to excel at any distance would allow her to reel in Duffy close to the line, and not fade off a hard-rode bike effort. It would be close, but I think Smyers would steal the victory in the final 100m on nothing but pure grit and determination.
“I got Duffy”
Professional triathletes of the ‘80s and ‘90s laid the groundwork to ensure that women had equal rights and opportunities in the sport. We’ve seen the women’s side particularly develop from what it was 20-25 years ago. With all due respect to Karen, Flora would dominate this match up from start to finish.
Flora is a world-class swimmer and would likely outswim Karen by 2-3 minutes. While Karen is strong on the bike and she’d have a fighting chance, Flora would still likely put time into Karen and only extend her lead further—especially if the course was technical. Finally, on the run Flora has proven herself time and time again to have the ability to run 34 minutes or less for 10K after a solo effort on the bike, and Karen just didn’t have that same run speed.
That does not take away from Karen’s accomplishments or talents; the short course side of tri is just in a VERY different place than it was 20 years ago. It is unbelievably difficult to compare two champion athletes from different eras, but the sport has elevated a great deal since Karen’s dominance in the early ‘90s. Flora wins by five-plus minutes.
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Celebrity Matchup: Katie Ledecky Vs. Des Linden (Olympic Distance)
“I got Ledecky”
This is a good one. One of the top distance swimmers against one of the top distance runners in the world is a matchup for the ages. Both are obviously at the top of their respective sports, but of course tri is the ultimate equalizer (or humbler) when it comes to single-sport athletes. The good news is that both women have fantastic engines and would likely be competitive all the way to the line. Let’s start with the stats.
Ledecky is the 2012 gold medalist in the 800m freestyle—the longest women’s swim event held at the time. She also has a 1500m free PR of 15:36. To put that in perspective, Ledecky would be over a minute ahead of our sport’s fastest swimmer, Lucy Charles-Barclay, when she swam at the British Olympic Trials in the same event. At that speed (1:02/100m), Ledecky would be touching the wall to finish the 1500m when Charles-Barclay was touching the same wall to head out for her last 100m!
As fast as she is in the water, there’s no evidence that Ledecky runs (and why should she?), but it would be safe to say that she could probably get through 6 miles safely, much faster than the average female 10K time for her age group (around 59 minutes). Her world-class aerobic capacity alone would put her closer to the 8-minute/mile range.
So let’s put the race into action. Ledecky comes out of the water with easily 10-15 minutes on Linden—probably more, assuming that most runners are very poor swimmers and Linden’s ultra-low body fat would probably have her sinking like a stone. Onto the bike, if it’s a flat course, Ledecky’s aerobic capacity (and flexibility, allowing her to sit in a tighter aero position) would probably shine, giving her even more of an advantage—probably in the 5-10-minute range. Also, keep in mind, Ledecky’s out of the water in great shape, while Linden would likely be suffering the effects of the swim onto the bike ride.
Heading into T2, I think Ledecky would have about a 20-minute lead, and even if Linden ran her own 10K road PR of 33 minutes (which I highly doubt she would, given the unfamiliarity of running off the bike), Ledecky would only need to run a 53-minute 10K, or an average of 8:31 per mile pace. I’d expect Linden’s run to look more like 34-35 minutes given the accumulated fatigue from the first two legs, and I think Ledecky would hang on for the win.
“I got Des”
Des Linden all the way!! Runners notoriously cross train in the pool when recovering from either injuries or supplement their run volume with biking and/or swimming. Plus she’s married to a triathlete, so while there is zero evidence of it on her social media, she has to have swam and biked a least a little during her running career.
Obviously Ledecky would smash Des in the water, but I could see Des making up some time on the bike—especially if the bike course was hilly. Runners are notoriously excellent climbers, even with only a little bit of training. Honestly, I think it would come down to who was stronger on the bike that day. I think the time difference between how much Katie would outswim Des by is about the same as what Des would outrun Katie by. At the end of the day this comes down to the fact that swimmers don’t cross train and runners do; therefore, Des wins!
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Main Event: Patrick Lange Vs. Peak Luc Van Lierde (Long Course)
“I got Lange”
This is a very difficult matchup to call. Van Lierde was one of the most consistent iron-distance athletes from 1995-2000. He held the Ironman World Record for a long period of time and has had MANY low 2:40 marathon efforts on his way to countless iron distance wins. These athletes BOTH know how to win on big days; interestingly they’ve both won Kona twice and each been on the podium three times. They aren’t afraid of a duel, and they aren’t afraid of really going nose to nose with one of their competitors.
These two might swim side by side or least come out in the same swim pack together. While neither of them is known for their swimming prowess, neither are necessarily back of the pack swimmers, and would likely exit the water near one another. Onto the bike it’s a big question mark; the racing dynamics in the late ‘90s versus what it is today in Kona are VERY different. Due to the advances on the bike it’s hard to compare the two of these athletes based off their bike splits in Kona. Even though on paper by simply comparing splits, Patrick would outride Van Lierde by 10+ minutes, my gut tells me on technologically equivalent bikes these two would be together all day long and Van Lierde may even pull away in a non-chase pack racing environment. The battle would become very exciting in the later stages of the marathon; however, I do think Patrick would pull away in the final 10k of the marathon winning by just a minute or so over Van Lierde.
“I got Van Lierde”
For sure on paper, the former world record holder (Lange) is faster than the former former world record holder (Van Lierde), but there’s certainly more to it than that. First, it’s important to understand that Van Lierde was arguably a more “complete” triathlete than Lange. Sure, Lange was 17th at ITU Duathlon World Championships in 2012 (also third in the mixed relay, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), but Van Lierde took silver at the ITU world championships in ‘96 (the same year he won Kona for the first time).
Second, it’s important to note the differences in technology and racing styles from Van Lierde’s prime in the mid to late ‘90s to today. Van Lierde and company didn’t ride in packs as much as iron-distance athletes do today. Whether that was due to a different approach or simply a more competitive field that allows bigger bunches, it’s hard to say. And if there’s one person who benefits from the new pack style, it’s absolutely Lange—just look at the way he worked with his teammate Andreas Dreitz in Kona back in 2018. Following that logic, Lange has had two big advantages (fair or unfair) that Van Lierde never could have dreamed up: a pack/teammate dynamic on the bike and high technology on both the bike (superbikes, etc.) and run (carbon-soled supershoes). With that stage set, let’s break down the race.
First, it’s likely that Van Lierde and Lange would either be out of the water together or I believe Van Lierde would put time on Lange—this is due to his ITU days and background as a “complete” triathlete, not a duathlete-turned-long-course-tri-guy. Let’s give Van Lierde at least a gap of 10 seconds to 1:30 out of T1. With that gap, Lange is in unfamiliar territory of having to catch a beast biker without any “friends.” Or in a different race scenario, Van Lierde now has people to link up with and push along. Either way, I think the small gap on the swim would be fatal to Lange’s chances of coming off the bike within sight of Van Lierde.
If this is the case, then it would simply be up to Van Lierde to have his typically fast run, like the 2:41 that won him his first title in ‘96. I think Lange would be out of contention midway through the bike and wouldn’t have enough horsepower to close on the fleet-footed Belgian with old-school racing chops.