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2014 Challenge Bahrain Pro Preview

Stars from across the board in triathlon’s disciplines are gathered in Bahrain, less than 24 hours away from the start of the race.

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Stars from across the board in triathlon’s disciplines–iron-distance, half iron-distance, ITU and Olympic-distance racing, including Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champions, Commonwealth Games medalists and Olympians–are gathered in the Middle East, less than 24 hours away from the start of the inaugural Challenge Bahrain triathlon. An interesting and perhaps game-changing feature of the pro race will be a 20-meter draft zone (with 35 seconds allowed to pass), an effort to create an unquestionably honest race on what promises to be an exceptionally flat, fast and tailwind-fueled bike course. Trying to name a favorite for the title is a bit like a parent trying to pick a favorite child out of a brood of 20 or 30-plus–there are simply that many talented men and women who will toe the line on Saturday. Some have admittedly arrived to Bahrain in less than peak form, already somewhat into off-season celebrations yet not wanting to miss the most talked about race on the 2014 calendar. Others have a laser focus on the finish line here and a share of the unprecedented half million-dollar prize purse (with $100,000 going to each champion). And while it’s impossible to predict what will happen among this star-studded and utterly diverse field, here are some interesting aspects to consider (in no particular order and not inclusive of every talented athlete set to compete).

The Men’s Field

Uber-cyclists Sebastian Kienle (GER) and Dirk Bockel (LUX) are widely anticipated to put on an impressive show on the Bahrain bike course, with the 20-meter draft zone filtering out anyone unable to cycle on his own pure strength. While Kienle could still be feeling the fatigue of Kona and the ensuing round of professional commitments, he alluded to the fact that he may be in better form than expected at yesterday’s press conference, as he described the pleasure with which he’s been training over the past several weeks, and also the fact that he’s experienced previous success when he himself expected it least. Bottom line, don’t count the current Ironman world champion out and, in fact, consider him as a hot favorite for the win. Bockel is surely hungry for a victory in Bahrain as well, as injury kept him out of Kona and thus he turned his focus fully to the race in December. Another athlete enjoying a hugely successful comeback after a long bout on the sidelines is two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion Michael Raelert (GER). Following recent wins at Ironman 70.3 Mandurah and Ironman 70.3 Ballarat, Raelert is perhaps the most talked about favorite in the men’s field. And if a happy athlete equals a successful athlete it would be hard to argue that opinion–Raelert seems thrilled to be back racing among the triathlon community that he loves so much.

Like wife Nikki, Tyler Butterfield (BER) is renowned for his strategy and skill on the bike, having once raced in the professional cycling ranks. Also an Abu Dhabi International Triathlon winner (2014), a two-time Olympian and a three-time Commonwealth Games athlete, there’s no doubting that Butterfield will be a factor on the road to Bahrain’s Formula One track (home of T2 and the finish line). And while the flat course and predicted tailwind will most likely favor the stronger cyclists, the opposite could also be true, all but neutralizing the ride and leaving the real race to the run course for any contenders with a decent enough advantage off the swim/bike combo. In that event, Tim Don (GBR) is an odds-on choice for the crown, with a run that is rarely rivaled. And given Don’s exceptional ability to perform under intense emotional stress (as he exhibited at Ironman 70.3 Boulder, scoring a spectacular second place just days after his young daughter underwent emergency brain surgery), he’ll do everything in his power to reach the line and head home first, as the birth of his second child seems likely to happen any day now, a few weeks ahead of schedule.

RELATED: Tim Don Ready For Battle In Bahrain

While Pete Jacobs’ (AUS) proudest title is likely his 2012 Ironman World Championship win, he’s proven himself more often victorious at the half distance. He’s another athlete with incredible foot speed when he’s in form, and although he admitted not feeling as fit as he would like, he also reports feeling rested, which will certainly benefit his race on Saturday. Another especially fleet-footed runner to watch for is James Cunnama (RSA), 2012 Challenge Roth champion and 2013 fourth place Kona finisher. While Cunnama won Ironman 70.3 South Africa in 2014, his Kona race resulted in a DNF–thus he’s surely hungry to replace that Big Island memory with a much more favorable one from Bahrain. A two-time Olympian and XTERRA World Champion, Eneko Llanos (ESP) is another man capable of running down a daunting field, as he proved when he earned an impressive victory at 2013’s Ironman Melbourne. Llanos was ill during this year’s Kona race, but here in Bahrain, with wife Ruth and son Jon on hand as support, he’ll do everything in his power to bring home a big result at season’s end. Tim O’Donnell (USA) is another athlete hoping to ease the sting of a struggle in Kona. It’s safe to assume that “TO” has been sharing in the post-Kona celebrations with wife Rinny, and therefore may not be in peak form for Bahrain, however with more than 20 career wins–including 10 at the 70.3 distance, an Ironman victory in Brazil and and the ITU Long Distance World Championship crown–he’s always a contender to be reckoned with. Keep an eye out also for two-time Challenge Penticton champion (2013 and 2014) and 2014 Ironman Canada runner-up Jeff Symonds (CAN) on the run course. While not yet as well known worldwide as some of his rivals, Symonds often posts one of the fastest splits in a race’s final leg.

With a storied career packed with 19 Ironman 70.3 wins and two Ironman victories, Luke Bell (AUS) is talented across the board in triathlon’s three disciplines. While knee surgery in February took him out of contention for a time, he had solid late season races at both Ironman 70.3 Mandurah and Ironman 70.3 Ballarat and may ultimately prove more rested than most in Saturday’s race. Another Australian athlete with an impressive resume is Brad Kahlefeldt (AUS), a Commonwealth Games Gold Medalist and two-time Olympian now showing success in longer distance racing. He scored the win at 2013’s Ironman 70.3 Putrajaya and this year’s Challenge Bateman’s Bay and is surely intent on making his mark in the Middle East. Likewise, Courtney Atkinson (AUS) is a two-time Olympian showing long-course promise with victories at Ironman 70.3 Cairns 2013 and Ironman 70.3 Sunshine Coast 2014. And countryman Tim Reed (AUS), the 2014 champion at Challenge Gold Coast, Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs and Ironman 70.3 Vineman, known equally for his prolific racing and brilliant results as well as for his “budgy-smuggler” style racing briefs, could surely capture a healthy chunk of the Bahrain prize purse. A neighbor to the Aussies, Dylan McNeice (NZL), a former professional swimmer, can be expected as one of the first out of the water. McNeice, who contemplated retirement after a less than stellar ITU career, now boasts four iron-distance titles (twice at Challenge Wanaka and twice at Challenge Taiwan) and five victories in six starts during the 2014 season, making him a name to watch.

Lastly, a tip of the hat to countrymen, neighbors and longtime training partners Massimo Cigana (ITA) and Alberto Casadei (ITA), as well as Fredrik Croneborg (SWE) and Till Schramm (GER), four professional men who will race for a third straight weekend when they step to the line in Bahrain, having competed in both the Laguna Phuket Triathlon (where Cigana and Casadei shared the victory) and Challenge Laguna Phuket (where Croneborg scored second).

RELATED: Top Pros Gather Ahead Of Challenge Bahrain

The Women’s Field

The women will start five minutes after the pro men and will enjoy a full 30-minute gap on the age group men, ensuring an unobstructed ride. The professional start list on the women’s side reads like a who’s who of the sport–even more so than the men’s field–with nearly every major name in attendance and an equally large number of variables at play. Melissa Hauschildt (AUS), two-time Ironman 70.3 world champion, always strikes fear among the competition at this distance. After an injury derailed her hope for a third 70.3 world title and kept her sidelined for almost two months this season, she’s coming off a confidence-building win at Challenge Laguna Phuket last weekend (where she purposefully scaled back her run speed to save her legs for this Saturday) and will be hungry for another major career victory. Reigning Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae (AUS), arguably one of the sport’s all-time greats and always a fan favorite, is admittedly not in top form at the moment, having reveled in the post-Kona whirlwind of both professional appearances and personal celebrations. But most would agree with rival Caroline Steffen, who said at yesterday’s press conference that Rinny is a force to be reckoned with, whether or not she’s in prime shape.

Dual Commonwealth Games gold medalist (individual and mixed relay) Jodie Stimpson (GBR) will make Bahrain her debut at the half iron-distance, and after training intensely with fellow competitor Lisa Norden (SWE), she may well be ready to transfer her ITU speed into long-course success. As for Norden, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist surely has the talent to take the win in Bahrain, however the status of a foot injury that has hampered her 2014 season remains unknown. Another short-course athlete expected to dazzle here–especially on the run course, where she always excels–is Helle Frederiksen (DEN), who proved her prowess at high stakes racing with a victory at this year’s Hy-Vee 5150 U.S. Championship. Frederiksen and Annabel Luxford (AUS), who recently put together back-to-back wins at Ironman 70.3 Mandurah and Challenge Shepparton, were named by Mirinda Carfrae as her top picks for the women’s podium. Another athlete who hasn’t yet made the leap to the full iron-distance and therefore is not feeling the same fatigue as many who raced in Kona is Radka Vodickova (CZE). With numerous half-distance wins this season alone, and with a warm-up at last weekend’s Challenge Laguna Phuket (where she finished third), Vodickova, who thrives on frequent racing and who left early from the Phuket after-party (where she normally loves to dance late into the night) in order to rest up for Bahrain, figures to be a factor here.

RELATED: Radka Vodickova On The Phuket/Bahrain Double

Also feeling fresh is 2012 Challenge Roth Champion Rachel “the Joycenator” Joyce (GBR) who, after laying down a formidable performance in Kona (finishing third), spent the last several weeks training and relaxing in Australia. With a chance to enjoy the change of scenery, the warm climate, a catch up with her younger sister Katie and the varied competition of a few pure cycling time trial races, Joyce is rested and raring to go hard on Saturday. Also a Challenge Roth Champion (2013) and a top-five Kona contender for five years running, Caroline Steffen (SUI), one of the strongest cyclists in the race, will aim to use the 20-meter draft rule to gain a solid advantage over the rest of the women. Steffen is no slouch on the run either–in fact she’s running faster than ever, so she’s clearly a favorite here. Recently returned to the pro ranks following the birth of her son Walker, Nikki Butterfield (AUS), a one-time professional cyclist, is also expected to be a fierce force on the bike leg. And with one Middle Eastern major title (Abu Dhabi International 2012) already to her name–that one coming shortly after the birth of daughter Savana–and with a crushing competitive drive, this talented mom may prove too tough to top.

Jodie Swallow (GBR), has a resume jam-packed with accolades across every distance, including Olympic and Commonwealth Games appearances, Ironman 70.3 and Ironman victories and the 2010 Ironman 70.3 World Champion title. She’s shown herself to be in exceptional form this season, earning second place in Mont-Tremblant followed by fourth in Kona, and with her gun-it-from-the-get-go race tactic she could be the first to hit T2 and also has the skill and speed to run fast enough to clinch the win. While the 2014 Ironman World Championship didn’t go according to plan for the ever-competitive Mary Beth Ellis (USA), her ninth place finish is a result many would envy. And with a fifth at Lifetime Tri Oceanside just two weeks later, Ellis showed she can pull up well from the massive Kona effort. Assuming she’s worked to fine tune her speed for Bahrain, the “Honey Badger” is one to watch for certain. Throw a setback at Meredith Kessler (USA) and she won’t let up until she’s turned it around to the positive, and then some. She struggled at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship, lacking her usually stellar swim and ultimately finishing fourth; then in Kona she posted a devastating DNF. But Kessler came back with a resounding 8:50:41 victory at Ironman Arizona and she appears poised to push it to the limit in pursuit of Bahrain’s inaugural title. As the reigning ITU Long Distance World Champion, Camilla Pedersen (DEN) has proven she’s also one to beat the odds, coming back not only to full health following a harrowing near-death bike accident, but to full winning form. What an incredible celebration of that personal victory a professional win in Bahrain would be for this fighter!

See the complete start list.