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Labeled as a runner, Alexander sets fastest bike split of the top 15 and then runs to the Ironman Hawaii all-time record.
Just like every year, the bike leg of the 2011 Ironman World Championship started with a large pack of men ripping down the Queen K. But unlike past years, Craig Alexander was the one pulling the rest of the field in his wake instead of lingering toward the back.
His competitors have publicly attacked his ability as a cyclist since he first raced Ironman Hawaii in 2007 and Crowie has finally put those doubts to rest by fracturing the bike pack then eviscerating the survivors on the run. By attacking on the bike and sustaining his lethal run split, Alexander cemented himself as not just a champion but a legend in the sport.
A massive pack containing more than 20 men stuck together through the first forty miles of the ride. The Island’s infamous winds were docile and had almost no impact on the race to that point. The racers lifted the tempo on the course’s biggest climb to the turn-around in Hawi and descent back toward town to break the field apart themselves since the weather wasn’t doing it for them. In past years, Craig Alexander always opted to let the most aggressive cyclists ride away at this decisive moment because he had the confidence that they would whither during the marathon and he would run them down. Once again a group of elite cyclists separated from the rest of the contenders in this version of the race, but Craig Alexander was the one doing the damage this year.
The field had been whittled down to seven men after the climb out of Kawaihae. Many of the usual suspects made the break, including a few of the athletes that orchestrated last year’s race winning break that relegated Alexander to 4th, but this year it was Alexander separating from his adversaries.
The heat and wind kicked up slightly and forced more athletes, including Andreas Raelert out of the lead pack, but Alexander was left standing. By the time he rolled back into town, the guy labeled as a pure runner had dropped many of the sport’s strongest cyclists and in the process completed the first step in removing the derogatory label of “pure runner” that Alexander has carried his entire Ironman career. Punctuating his ride with another race-winning marathon was the second and final step.
Crowie has maintained in the past that riding a controlled effort allowed him to execute the metronomic run splits that have won two Ironman world championships, but his bike split this year was anything but controlled. While executing the ride that left Andreas Raelert twisting in his wake, Crowie was grimacing and squirming. He was very clearly at his limit by the 105th mile. The cost of Crowie’s 4:24 bike split was all over his face. Many athletes have tried to reinvent themselves by racing to their weakness on the Big Island before and it typically ends in disaster. Although Alexander arrived in T2 much earlier than anyone expected, he still hadn’t proven himself as a great triathlon cyclist. He had to cap his day with yet another fast marathon and a 3rd Ironman world title to do so.
Straight out of transition, Andreas Raelert was rapidly closing the gap to Alexander. Just as in 2009, Raelert exploded out of the gate while Alexander set a steady pace. Like that year, Raelert wilted on the blurringly hot pavement of the Queen K as Alexander stuck to his plan. Questions about Crowie’s ability to run off a fast ride were starting to fade.
By the time Alexander, Raelert and Pete Jacobs had each entered the Energy Lab, a crowd of onlookers were eagerly awaiting to see the effects of this notoriously difficult stretch of the marathon. Among the onlookers was last year’s Ironman world champ Chris McCormack. He had no doubt about the outcome. When asked who he thought would win, Macca stated, “Oh, Crowie for sure.” The trip down the Queen K back to the finish line might have felt like a coronation, but Alexander was fighting cramps.
Pro triathlete Dan Hugo witnessed Alexander stop and bend at the waist to loosen his weakening hamstrings and stated that he’s, “never seen Crowie look so fragile.”
Alexander forced his legs to cooperate and he crossed the finish line in 8:03:56, besting Luc Van Lierde’s 15-year old course record.
Although it’s easy to say Alexander won race on the bike, that analysis fails to appreciate the enormity of his accomplishment. Only Chris Lieto, Marino Vanhoenacker and Luke McKenzie matched or exceeded Alexander’s pace on the bike. Lieto finished 69th, Vanhoenacker dropped out and McKenzie took 9th. Alexander won his third IM world championship by combining the fastest bike split by any athlete in the top 15 finishers with a 2:44 marathon. The doubt about Alexander’s ability to ride fast and follow it with a stellar marathon has now been put to rest.
Alexander’s evolution as an athlete is even more surprising because of his age. At 38, he is the oldest male winner in the history of the race. What allowed an athlete that has always lost time on the bike to ride so well this year?
Alexander made a highly publicized bike switch in the middle of this year. The Specialized Shiv Alexander rode to his third Ironman world championship is the third bike he has raced this summer. His frame has changed, and so has his hydration equipment and helmet selection. After losing last year’s race on the bike leg, Alexander worked closely with Mat Steinmetz to refine his position and hydration accessories. After wind tunnel testing many setups, they ended up using a single horizontal bottle between Alexander’s forearms and a second bottle cage zip tied under his saddle in addition to the integrated bladder hidden in his frame. The hydration accessories he selected last year were substantially bulkier. Crowie also finally switched from a vented road helmet to an aerohelmet. Although Alexander’s bike setup was drastically different than last year, the equipment changes alone don’t account for the difference between last year’s ride and this year’s.
Alexander simply rode his bike like it is a weapon rather than a weakness. Whether Alexander was fueled with anger over the disrespect paid to his cycling abilities, a need to validate his radical changes or any other source of motivation, Alexander vaulted himself into triathlon’s pantheon by riding with aggression and backing it up with a typically fantastic run.
Written by Aaron Hersh. Follow him @triathletetech.