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2015 Ironman World Championship Preview: Pro Men

Will defending champion Sebastian Kienle repeat his strong bike-run showing from the 2014 race?

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Get to know this year’s favorites, wild cards and rookies in the greatest endurance challenge on the planet—the Ironman World Championship. Plus: How the action could all unfold. Read the men’s preview below and check out the women’s preview here.

The Contenders

Sebastian Kienle (GER)
The defending champion would like nothing more than to repeat his strong bike-run showing from the 2014 race. Kienle quickly made up four minutes he lost on the swim, then rode away from the field, posting a 4:20 bike split that was more than 10 minutes faster than the rest of the top 10. A controlled 2:54 marathon gave him a five-minute victory margin. Kienle might be limited to one race plan: Build a lead with a hard bike, then maintain it on the run. Last year’s race proved that it’s hard to counter that strategy when he is on form, but after being beaten by Jan Frodeno in Frankfurt, Kienle will be very motivated to be the top German finisher in Kona.

Jan Frodeno (GER)
After having to overcome mechanical problems to finish third in his two 2014 Ironmans, everything came together for Frodeno at the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt this year, when he showed he could beat Kienle—by having the fastest swim and then hammering out a 4:08 bike course record. Kienle beat his own bike course record by one minute, but he still lost three minutes to Frodeno, who sealed up the race with a 2:50 marathon, winning by almost 12 minutes—and in triple-digit temperatures, no less. If Frodeno is anywhere close to his Frankfurt shape, he’ll be hard to beat. And if a Frankfurt win is a sign of things to come in Kona (Kienle won the Frankfurt-Kona double last year), Frodeno is poised for a very good day on the Big Island.

Frederik Van Lierde (BEL)

The 2013 Hawaii champion isn’t the flashiest racer, but he rarely shows any weakness. Last year in Kona he suffered through cramping on the run after the Energy Lab, which probably cost him a podium finish. If he wants to contend for the win, he has to limit the time he loses to the very strong cyclists and produce a superb run. It would require a big step forward, but his commanding win at Ironman South Africa showed he is working toward that capability.

Andy Potts (USA)
He has earned multiple titles across all distances and dominated his (very hot) summer Ironman (Coeur d’Alene), as he does almost every year. But Potts is still chasing a podium finish in Kona. For that, he needs to limit the time he loses when the big bike group breaks up around the turnaround in Hawi. If he is within four minutes of the podium in T2, with his experience and solid run he can improve on his best-ever fourth-place finish from 2014.

Luke McKenzie (AUS)
After his runner-up finish in 2013, McKenzie struggled the following season yet still managed to finish 15th in Kona. A strong win at Ironman Cairns shows that he has reclaimed his old form. He should be able to stay with the front group on the swim and then ride with Frodeno from the start or with Kienle when the bike group breaks up. If he can follow that up with another sub-three-hour marathon, he’ll be in a great position for a podium finish.

RELATED PHOTOS: 2014 Ironman World Championship – Men’s Race

Wildcards and Americans

Cyril Viennot (2015 ITU Long Distance world champion), Nils Frommhold (Challenge Roth winner) and Tim Van Berkel (second at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Melbourne), who were the fifth- to seventh-place finishers (respectively) from Kona 2014, will likely be in the mix for 2015 as well. Ben Hoffman (second last year), Tim O’Donnell (fifth in 2013), Ironman Texas winner Matt Hanson (who has run a 2:53 in Kona as an age-grouper) and Andy Potts will vie for the top American spot.

RELATED: Top Americans Talk Kona

Rookies

Kona rookie pros are usually a bit overwhelmed by the quality and depth of the world championship field. But Canadians Brent McMahon (fastest Ironman debut with 7:55 in Arizona), Lionel Sanders (winner of the cancelled-swim Ironman Florida) and Jeffrey Symonds (winner of Ironman Melbourne) and British athletes Joe Skipper (second at Ironman Texas after a 4:09 bike course record) and Tim Don (Olympic-distance world champ and winner of Ironman Mallorca) could be factors in the race, and even carry legitimate podium potential.

RELATED – Brent McMahon: The Focus Is On Kona

Head to Head

Here’s how the top male competitors’ swim, bike and run strengths stack up (on a scale of 0 to 5). Note: The points for each athlete are based on the actual results in iron-distance races and adjusted for course conditions. Learn more about Radde’s rating system at Trirating.com

Forecasting the Champion

Did you know that in 17 of the last 18 years, the men’s winner at the Ironman World Championship finished in the top four the previous year? The only exception to that rule was when Germany’s Normann Stadler won in 2006 after a DNF in 2005 (when he suffered a race-ending flat tire), but he had won the race in 2004. So if the trend continues, the 2015 Kona men’s champion will likely come from the top four men in 2014: winner Sebastian Kienle, runner-up Ben Hoffman, third-place finisher Jan Frodeno or fourth-place finisher Andy Potts.

RELATED – Kona Trend: Men’s Winner Top Four The Previous Year

How the Race Will Play Out

Race time: 00:50
Race starts at 6:25 a.m. Hawaiian time
Swim exit
With last year’s rough swim conditions, there was hardly any separation—usually there is a small front group going for the first-out-of-water bonus. The swim will be the main chance for super-fish Dylan McNeice to shine in Kona, so he’ll fight hard against other strong swimmers such as Andy Potts and Jan Frodeno. The question for reigning champ Sebastian Kienle will be how much time he loses to the other contenders in the swim—he’ll try to keep it less than four minutes, as in 2014.

Race time: 2 hours
Early bike
The ride through Kona and the first part on the Queen K highway is always fast and hectic but usually leads to a consolidation of a large front group of more than 20 athletes. If Frodeno uses a similarly aggressive tactic to Frankfurt, watch for him to take the lead after the swim and open up an early gap on the rest of the field.

Race time: 3 hours
Turnaround at Hawi
By this time the less strong swimmers (most notably Kienle) will have caught up to the front group. This group typically starts to break apart on the climb up to Hawi. Kienle will probably pull ahead, and he usually has a few strong bike riders going with him: In 2013 he worked with Andrew Starykowicz and Luke McKenzie (who finished second); in 2014 it was Maik Twelsiek (who finished just outside the top 10).

Race time: 5 hours
First athlete is usually in T2 around 11:40 a.m. local time
Ride back into T2
Kienle and the others in front will work hard to extend their lead. Most of the time differences occur in the last 40 miles of the bike ride, when athletes struggle to keep their focus after hours of hard riding in the heat and wind. Kienle will need at least a two-minute advantage over Frederik Van Lierde and probably six minutes over Jan Frodeno. (In 2014, Kienle had eight minutes over Van Lierde and 12 minutes over Frodeno.) The trailing riders have to find the right mix between chasing and saving their legs for the run. Often there is one stronger runner who manages to limit the time lost to the uber cyclists (Craig Alexander in 2011, Pete Jacobs in 2012, Frederik Van Lierde in 2013) and will be in a good position for the win in the end.

Race time: 6 hours
First part of the run (out and back on Ali’i Drive)
By the time the run along Ali’i Drive ends with the climb up Palani Road at 10 miles, it’s evident who went too hard on the bike, and the real title contenders will have emerged. We may see wildcards Matt Hanson, Lionel Sanders or Jeff Symonds move through the field and perhaps even into the top 10.

Race time: 7 hours
First man to finish around 2:30 p.m. local time
Queen K highway and Energy Lab

When the athletes exit the Energy Lab, there are 6 miles of running left, and it’ll be clear whether there is one dominating athlete (maybe Frodeno?) or whether we will see another close finish for the win. There will be a lot of position changes after the Energy Lab, and, ultimately, there are usually less than 10 minutes separating third and 10th place.

2015 Men’s Pro Start List

1 Sebastian Kienle GER
2 Jan Frodeno GER
3 Frederik Van Lierde BEL
4 Ben Hoffman USA
5 Andy Potts USA
6 Nils Frommhold GER
7 Timothy Van Berkel AUS
8 Bart Aernouts BEL
9 Lionel Sanders CAN
10 Ronnie Schildknecht SUI
11 Pete Jacobs AUS (Will not start)
12 Matt Hanson USA
14 Marino Vanhoenacker BEL
15 Jeffrey Symonds CAN
16 Cyril Viennot FRA
17 Tim Don GBR
18 Brent McMahon CAN
19 Matt Trautman RSA
20 Bas Diederen NLD
21 Timothy O’Donnell USA
22 Romain Guillaume FRA
23 Cameron Brown NZL
24 Ivan Rana ESP
25 Guilherme Manocchio BRA
26 Joe Skipper GBR
27 Michael Weiss AUT
28 Eneko Llanos ESP
29 Tyler Butterfield BER
30 Clemente Alonso-Mckernan ESP
31 Callum Millward NZL
32 Brad Kahlefeldt AUS
33 David Mcnamee GBR
34 Andi Boecherer GER
35 Andreas Raelert GER
36 Luke McKenzie AUS
37 Boris Stein GER
38 Dylan McNeice NZL
39 Fredrik Croneborg SWE
40 Igor Amorelli BRA
41 Denis Chevrot FRA
42 Jordan Rapp USA
43 Christian Kramer GER
44 Paul Ambrose AUS
45 Pedro Gomes PRT
46 Terenzo Bozzone NZL
47 Viktor Zyemtsev UKR
48 Kyle Buckingham RSA
49 Jan Van Berkel SUI
50 Maik Twelsiek GER
51 Victor Del Corral Morales ESP
52 Fraser Cartmell GBR
53 Daniel Bretscher USA
54 Miquel Tinto ESP
55 Luke Bell AUS
56 Matt Chrabot USA
57 Jeremy Jurkiewcz FRA
58 Justin Daerr USA