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5 Must-Watch Pro Races of 2018

You already know about Kona and the ITU Grand Final, but what are the other must-follow events of 2018 for tri fanatics?

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You already know about Kona and the ITU Grand Final, but what are this year’s other must-follow events for tri fanatics?  

The world of professional triathlon is at an interesting juncture. The two-time reigning Olympic champion (Alistair Brownlee) has transitioned to 70.3 racing. The reigning 70.3 world champ, and arguably the most dominant athlete the sport has ever seen (Javier Gómez) has Kona in his crosshairs for the first time. Then there’s Daniela Ryf attempting to become just the second woman to win four consecutive Ironman World Championships, and Flora Duffy seeking to become the first woman ever to win three consecutive ITU world titles. 2018 won’t be short on great races, but here are a few we can’t wait to see unfold this season.

ITU Mixed Relay World Championships

Hamburg, Germany
July 15
This event took on a new level of significance last June, when the IOC added it to the Olympic Programme for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. It’s the biggest victory that Marisol Casado has had in her 10 years as ITU President, and she’s hopeful it can be a catalyst to grow triathlon around the globe. This year’s race should be a good indicator of which countries are true medal contenders for 2020. Since launching the 4 x 4 mixed relay format in 2009, there have been six different world champions. Look for Australia, Great Britain, France, and the United States to all be in contention in front of the largest crowd in the sport in downtown Hamburg.

Who will stand on top of the podium in 2018? Photo: Paul Phillips/Competitive Image/@Compimagephoto

Ironman 70.3 World Championship

Port Elizabeth, South Africa
September 1-2
Javier Gómez and Alistair Brownlee have raced each other nearly a hundred times throughout their careers, but this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships could be their best battle yet. Brownlee has more raw speed than any triathlete in history, and Gómez has the kind of diesel engine that could help him rewrite the Kona record books in the coming years. Ironman 70.3 is the perfect distance where their skills are evenly matched, and this year’s world championship might give us a verdict on which one is the best all-around male triathlete in the world.

In the women’s race, the excitement circles around what might happen. If Daniela Ryf defends her title from last year, she’ll have amassed seven world titles in the past five years. If Holly Lawrence regains her 2016 form after an injury-plagued season last year, Ryf will have some serious competition. And if Nicola Spirig decides to show up in South Africa, we could have a different Swiss-woman standing atop the podium.

Wildflower Triathlon Festival

Bradley, Calif.
May 4-6
After going AWOL for one year, triathlon’s version of Woodstock will return to Central California this year. The event was canceled in 2017 after record drought took Lake San Antonio to record lows, but thanks to plenty of snowfall in the Sierras over the past year, the weekend-long triathlon festival that started in 1983 will make a triumphant comeback in May.

This race isn’t only significant because it went MIA for a year. Jesse Thomas will be going for his seventh straight Wildflower title, a streak only matched by Paula Newby-Fraser’s six consecutive wins in Hawaii or Cam Brown’s 10 wins at Ironman New Zealand. The big question is whether or not course-record holder Terenzo Bozzone will return to Lake San Antonio and end Thomas’ streak at six. And course-record holder Heather Jackson will be back to try to regain her Wildflower crown—it would be her fourth.

Kanute is the defending champion at Alcatraz. Photo: Rocky Arroyo

Escape from Alcatraz

San Francisco, Calif.
June 3
Like Wildflower, this year’s “Escape” takes on added significance, but for a very different reason. This is the race that can save professional short-course, non-draft racing. The format was nearly killed off when the Life Time Triathlon Series axed its pro fields in 2016, but with the launch of the Escape Triathlon Series, there’s hope for the future. In order to be one of the 24 athletes invited to compete in the 2018 and 2019 editions of Escape from Alcatraz, pros will have to qualify through a six-race series, with stops like London, Philadelphia, D.C., and Beijing. With some generous prize purses along the way (including $20,000 to the winners of the Beijing International Triathlon and Escape from Alcatraz), there’s a chance for a handful athletes to make a decent living off this one series. It’s music to the ears of short-course specialists like Lauren Goss and Ben Kanute, who won last year’s Escape.

The Championship

Samorin, Slovakia
June 3, 2018
On the same day that the short-course speedsters will be escaping from Alcatraz, the half-distance specialists will be vying their share of €150,000 ($185,000 USD) 6,000 miles away in Western Slovakia. Dull name aside, this race drew some serious star power in its inaugural running last year. Alistair Brownlee squared off against Lionel Sanders for the first time, but the Olympic champion was forced to withdraw on the run after leading into T2. Sanders ended up on top, besting a field that included ITU standouts like Richard Murray and Ironman champions like Sebastian Kienle. The women’s race also brought together a patchwork of different specialists, with Lucy Charles taking the win over ITUers Rachel Klamer and Ellie Salthouse and 70.3 standouts Heather Wurtele and Annabel Luxford.

The field for the second edition has yet to be released, but the race falls on an open weekend in the ITU calendar, so expect to see a few of the world’s top draft-legal athletes try their hand at the half-distance.