Not only is the inaugural PTO Championship shaping up to be the triathlon of the year, it’s looking like it’ll be one of the most significant triathlons of all time. The PTO Championship at Challenge Daytona will ostensibly serve as the long-course world championships in a year that saw very little pro racing over the distance. Pandemic season aside, never before has such a mix of iron-distance, half-distance, and ITU specialists competed with so much on the line. The prize purse is $1 million, the field is officially set, and now all that’s left to do is sit back, cross your fingers, and hope that COVID doesn’t get so out of hand in Florida that it’s called off before race day on Dec. 6. Better cross your toes too.
Over the past few weeks, the Professional Triathletes’ Organisation has announced the 20 lucky “wildcard” athletes who will round out the field. The top 40 male and female athletes in the PTO world rankings automatically qualified, with the final 10 men and 10 women being hand-selected based on recent results and “star power.” While some of the athletes ranked 40th to 50th in the PTO rankings surely feel slighted by the addition of a number of ITU superstars, if the PTO is ever going to have a working business model, it needs to be centered around live TV, and an athlete ranked 47th in the world isn’t going to bring in an audience like Johnny Brownlee.
Update: The PTO has now said they’ll also be giving another 16 special invites.
Noticeably absent from the start list is the #1 ranked woman in the PTO rankings, four-time Ironman world champion Daniela Ryf, who is sitting out the 2020 season to recover from a foot injury. With the GOAT watching from home in Switzerland, the women’s race is now wide open. Here’s a rundown of a few of the auto-qualifiers and wildcards who should have the biggest impact on how the biggest prize purse in triathlon history will be shelled out.
Women auto-qualifiers to watch at the PTO Championship
Lucy Charles-Barclay (GBR, ranked #2):
Charles-Barclay contends for the win every time she toes the start line, but she’s traditionally been better suited for the full iron-distance. She’ll be at or near the front of the race to start the run, but will have to hold off a handful of cheetahs chasing her down to cross the line first.
Anne Haug (GER, #4):
Like Charles-Barclay, the reigning Ironman world champion might have a better chance at the win if the race were twice as long, but let’s not forget that Haug had a not-too-shabby ITU career before jumping up in distance, and has had a couple of dominant Ironman 70.3 victories.
Holly Lawrence (GBR, #6):
With Ryf out of the mix, the runner-up at last year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championship might be the odds-on favorite. She’s one of the only women with the horsepower to reach T2 with or in front of Charles-Barclay, but she’ll also have plenty of short-course speedsters eager and capable of chasing her down.
Chelsea Sodaro (USA, #11):
While Heather Jackson is the top ranked American at #8, it’s Sodaro who has been USA’s standout at the middle distance recently, racking up three wins in 2019 and a fourth-place showing at last year’s 70.3 world champs in Nice, France. The former professional runner has the footspeed that could put some damage into the likes of Lawrence and Charles-Barclay.
Imogen Simmonds (SUI, #16):
With Ryf sidelined, Simmonds will be one of the few carrying the Swiss flag in Daytona. The 27-year old had a breakthrough season in 2019, winning Ironman 70.3 Dubai, finishing third at the 70.3 world champs, and second in her Ironman debut at Frankfurt. She packs a lot of power on the bike, but the lack of hills in Daytona will not work in her favor.
Women wildcards to watch at the PTO Championship
Nicola Spirig (SUI):
Switzerland’s best shot to take home top honors in the inaugural PTO World Championship might be 2012 Olympic gold medalist Nicola Spirig, who has mastered the art of peaking at just the right time. While most of her hardware has been earned on the ITU circuit (she has an incredible six European titles to go with two Olympic medals), she’s no stranger to a TT bike, and, at 38, she still has some of the fastest run legs in the game.
Flora Duffy (BER):
Duffy is perhaps the best triathlete in the world on challenging courses. Unfortunately for the Bermudan super cyclist, she won’t find any switchback climbs or technical descents in Daytona. Nonetheless, she has run speed that few of the long-course women can match, and could factor for the win if she doesn’t fade late in the run.
Lisa Norden (SWE):
The 2012 Olympic silver medalist hasn’t been spotted at too many triathlons over the past two seasons, because she’s been busy competing as a professional road cyclist. She won the Swedish national TT title in 2018 and the road title in 2019, and represented Sweden at this year’s UCI World Championship in both disciplines. If there’s any woman capable of having a big gap at T2, it’s Norden.
Rest of the women wildcard selections:
Georgia Taylor-Brown (GBR), Jessica Learmouth (GBR), Angela Naeth (CAN), Renee Kiley (AUS), Danielle Dingman (USA), Lucy Hall (GBR), Simone Mitchell (GBR)
Men auto-qualifiers to watch at the PTO Championship
Jan Frodeno (GER, #1):
Update: Frodeno has said he won’t be making it to the start line after injuries from a bike crash.
The top-ranked male will be racing in Daytona, and there’s no explanation needed as to why he’ll be a factor for the win. While the three-time Ironman world champion (and new IMWC course record holder) is regarded mostly as an Ironman specialist these days, he has two Ironman 70.3 world titles to his name, the second of which came on the heels of an absurd 1:06:34 half-marathon split. Oh, and don’t forget that little 2008 Olympic gold medal.
Alistair Brownlee (GBR, #2):
The co-favorite in the men’s race has to be the two-time Olympic gold medalist. He’s been the runner-up at the 70.3 world championship each of the past two seasons, and will look to use his speed in the water to get out front early along with some of the other short-course standouts.
Lionel Sanders (CAN, #4):
Sanders won at this venue last year, but that was against a much less competitive field. With so many elite swim/bikers in the mix this year, he’ll have his work cut out for him to catch up on the bike. He appears focused on that discipline during the 2020 season, breaking the Canadian one-hour record on the bike recently.
Rodolphe Von Berg (USA, #7):
In 2019, Von Berg went from up-and-comer to the next big American thing. His third-place showing at last year’s 70.3 world championship was due in large part to a blistering bike split, but unfortunately he won’t find any mountains to climb in Daytona.
Javier Goméz (ESP, #10):
Like Frodeno and Brownlee, Goméz is a favorite every time he shows up, no matter what the distance or discipline. He’s the most versatile triathlete on earth, and this may be his ideal distance and type of course. He has no glaring weakness, but there are men in this field who can outride him, which they’ll need to do just to keep him off the podium.
Men wildcards to watch at the PTO Championship
Vincent Luis (FRA):
Luis is the big unknown in the men’s race. No one in this field can match the two-time reigning ITU world champ in terms of raw run speed, but we’ve never seen him do it over this distance. We’ve also never even seen him on a TT bike. If he’s close heading onto the run, he could spoil the party for the long-course specialists, as he’s had more race experience than almost anyone else in 2020 so far.
Gustav Iden (NOR):
Iden was the surprise victor at last year’s 70.3 world championship on a course that couldn’t be more different from the one he’ll be competing on in Daytona. It’s hard to see him being a factor without a big mountain to climb, but his 1:08:10 run split in Nice last year was more than two and a half minutes better than Alistair Brownlee’s.
Johnathan Brownlee (GBR):
While the younger Brownlee has yet to prove himself at this distance, he has competed in a handful of non-drafting races and is just as strong on his TT bike as he is on his road bike. It will be interesting to see if he and Alistair employ some team tactics on the swim and bike to get away from the likes of Frodeno, Von Berg, and Goméz.
Sam Long (USA):
We’re going to learn a lot about Sam Long in Daytona. The upstart American has been the hottest thing in the sport during this COVID-ravaged season, winning in dominant fashion at every race he’s been able to find. But we’ve also never seen him compete against the world’s best. Expect him to let it rip on the bike and then hang on for dear life on the run.
Rest of the men wildcard selections:
Chris Leiferman (USA), James Cunnama (RSA), Kristian Blummenfelt (NOR), Tim Don (GBR), Henri Schoeman (RSA), Magnus Ditlev (DEN)