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A First-Timer’s Guide To Watching An ITU Race

Five steps to following the world’s fastest triathletes this weekend in San Diego.

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Five steps to following the world’s fastest triathletes this weekend in San Diego.

The two athletes who fought for the Olympic gold medal just eight months ago are going head-to-head again at the Omegawave ITU World Triathlon San Diego on Saturday. Although their breed—the ITU athlete—gets less attention and respect than their long course brethren here in the US, make no mistake—the ITU WTS series makes up the most competitive triathlons in the world. You have only one chance this year to watch them do battle on this side of the Atlantic. Whether you’re an Ironman die-hard or a sprint-distance first timer, this simple five-step guide will help you follow these incredible races.

Why does the ITU matter?

The athletes racing the ITU WTS circuit form the most talented group of triathletes in the world, without exception, and they are the only triathletes who can compete for Olympic medals. Leanda Cave, Craig Alexander, Chris McCormack, Mirinda Carfrae, Andy Potts, Andreas Raelert and many more Ironman studs all cut their teeth racing in the ITU. Many of them graduated from short-course without ever cracking into the upper echelon. Of that ultra-elite group of long-distance triathletes, only McCormack and Cave had the horsepower to win the world title. Crowie and Carfrae never came close. While the best Ironman athletes are arguably just as impressive as the best draft-legal short-course stars, the ITU boasts a deeper pool of premier athletes.

The ITU circuit is the feeder system for longer distances. Many of the best Ironman athletes five years from now are racing this weekend at ITU WTS San Diego—we just don’t know which athletes will make the jump.

RELATED: Train Like An Olympic Triathlete

They’re drafting, doesn’t that make ITU racing easier?

Yes and no. No one considers bike racing easy just because the athletes can draft. Riding on someone’s wheel isn’t necessarily easy. Alistair Brownlee—the Olympic gold medalist—is renowned for driving the pace on the ride to soften his competitors’ legs. While it’s true that a pure cyclist stands little chance of winning an ITU race, this format also requires much more bike handling skill than a non-drafting race.

RELATED: Think Drafting Is Easy? You Try It

Who’s who?

These are some of the favorites and reasons to root for them:

The Men

Alistair Brownlee—The elder Brownlee brother is the best triathlete in the world. He’s only 24 years old but is already a multi-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist. San Diego will be his first major race of 2013, and, if he’s on form, only Gomez has an honest shot to beat him.

Javier Gomez—The only person standing between the Brownlees and total domination of the sport is Gomez. Olympic silver medalist, world champion and true master of all three disciplines—keep an eye on him not only to win today, but because he may dominate 70.3 this summer.

Jonathan Brownlee—Injury forced the defending champion and London Olympic bronze winner to pull out of the race, leaving his brother to battle Javier Gomez on his own.

Hunter Kemper—The 36-year-old American has been racing elite triathlete since he was in high school and is the only person to compete in every Olympic triathlon.

Joao Silva—Showed great early season fitness finishing third at ITU World Triathlon Auckland earlier this month. Expect him to make the group chasing Brownlee and Gomez.

Laurent Vidal—Another athlete with the leg speed to duke it out for third. He showed patience in the London games, slowly moving through the field in the run. Watch for him in the final miles.

Jan Frodeno—2008 Olympic gold medalist has an outstanding sprint if he’s in the position to use it.

Matt Chrabot—The gritty American loves to mix it up on the bike. Don’t be surprised if he takes a flier during the second leg looking for a head start on the run.

Richard Murray—He is unlikely to show up until the final leg, but he matched Jonathan Brownlee’s explosive start to the run in 2012.

Mario Mola—Finished second in Auckland.

Jarrod Shoemaker—The only American to win a WCS/WTS race in the series’ four-year history.

The Women

Gwen Jorgensen—As still a relative newcomer to the sport, she has the highest ceiling of all the American athletes.

Sarah Groff—Fourth place in the London Olympics left Groff, the most accomplished American in the women’s field, with the hunger to continue progressing. She doesn’t have the explosion to win in the final half-mile, but can grind away at a blistering pace.

Barbara Riveros Diaz—One of the quickest and more explosive runners in the field.

Anne Haug—Strong biker/runner fresh off a win at ITU World Triathlon Series Auckland. If she makes the second swim pack, she can win the race.

Andrea Hewitt—Veteran ITU racer and 2011 WCS Grand Final winner has to return to previous form to contend for the victory.

Paula Findlay—Former phenom dominated the ITU circuit in 2010 but injuries have derailed her progress since then.

Julie Ertel—The 41-year-old represented the US at the Beijing Olympics.

Emma Moffatt—Beijing Olympic bronze medalist and former world champ can lead from gun to tape when she’s at her best.

RELATED: San Diego Hosts Second Stop Of ITU World Triathlon Series

What’s important and what isn’t?

Making the front groups on the swim is absolutely critical. Any athlete unable to stay with the first or second pack will not only have to ride faster than the leaders, but do so without the benefit of sharing the work load with dozens of other athletes. Keep an eye out for any favorites left behind in the swim. They’re likely to have a long day.

San Diego’s course is very flat, which will make a bike breakaway unlikely in this particular event. If there’s one person in the world who can do it, Brownlee is that guy. Strong riders in the women’s field are likely to save their strength for the run.

Riding at the front of the bike pack keeps an athlete at lower risk for a crash, but that’s about it. The people in the last quarter of the pack are working harder than the leaders because they are forced to sprint out of every corner to catch up. Closely watch the last miles of the ride—all the athletes will be scrambling for the first few positions into transition. Entering T2 a few seconds back can be a death sentence to someone’s chances for the win.

A breakaway on the bike can earn valuable time, but rarely translates into a win.

Unlike long-course racing, the ITU athletes blast out of T2 at incredible speeds. Expect Gomez and Brownlee to rip through the first half-mile of the run at about 4:20/mile pace. Any athlete unable to match this explosive burst is at an immediate disadvantage. Because of this torrid start to the run, any male who bobbles T2 will struggle to make the lead pack.

While the women also rip out of transition, the key moments in their race often take place in the middle miles. Look for elite runners such as Hewitt, Riveros Diaz, Haug and Americans Jorgensen and Groff to settle the race between miles 2 and 4, leaving just a few athletes to duke it out for the victory.

RELATED: Alistair Brownlee Thrills Home Crowd, Earns Olympic Gold

How do I watch?

If you’re in San Diego, come down to the race area in Mission Beach. It’s an open course with plenty of room to catch a great view. If you aren’t in Southern California, you can watch the race live on Universalsports.com or on Universal Sports on your television. Follow @Triathletemag, @triathlonlive, @ituonline, @simonwhitfield, @coachdaz, @brittri, @trinewsonly, @triathletetech, @juliapolloreno, @trimagjene, @bethanymavis, @usatmedia, @sgodwinfilms, @trilounge and @maccanow on Twitter. If you’re going to be tweeting from the race, add you handle in the comments section.

RELATED: Universal Sports To Televise ITU WTS San Diego Live