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In recent history, it’s been almost a given who from the men’s pro field will break away from the bike pack at the Ironman World Championship. In the mid-2000s it was Germany’s Normann Stadler, with a short stint by Denmark’s Torbjørn Sindballe until his retirement in 2009. Since then, it’s been American Chris Lieto. Up until this summer, we thought we’d see Lieto and Lance Armstrong work together on the bike to pull away from the field. But with Armstrong banned from USAT-sanctioned races and Lieto out with an injury, will a new uberbiker emerge this year?
A Look Back:
German pro Normann Stadler started racing on the Big Island in 1999 and made it onto the podium in 2000. “Stormin’ Normann” finished fourth in 2002 and 2003, but broke through in 2004. Up until 2004, Ironman Hawaii had never been won off the bike—only on the run. Stadler’s victory in 2004, which included a 4:37:58 bike, marked a new era in Ironman. He used a 2:57:52 marathon to cruise to the finish line, finishing with a 10-minute gap over runner-up and three-time Ironman world champ Peter Reid. (That was all while recovering from a broken toe—he had broken his toe four weeks prior and ended up cutting holes into his cycling and running shoes, including the ones he raced Kona in, to make them more comfortable.)
Stadler had a bad year in 2005 with three flat tires (the famous “Too much glue!” incident) and a bee sting, so that was the year Torbjørn “Thunder Bear” Sindballe made his move. The Danish supercyclist, who had raced to an impressive sixth place in his rookie Ironman Hawaii in 2004, had been battling injury leading into the race. He still posted a 4:21:35 bike, breaking Thomas Hellriegel’s 1996 bike course record, but ended up having to walk the last 11 miles of the marathon to finish.
Sindballe’s bike course record only stood for one year. In 2006, Stadler returned to Kona and made his move to the front at the five-mile mark of the bike and led from there to the finish. He put more than 10 minutes into the chase pack and broke Sindballe’s record by finishing the bike in 4:18:23. Runner-up Chris McCormack of Australia couldn’t close the gap but came within 71 seconds of Stadler by the finish.
Sindballe’s best performance came in 2007, when he got the fastest bike split (Stadler was ill) in a time of 4:25:26 and finished in third place. That same year, Lieto made his way onto the Kona radar by finishing with the second fastest bike split (4:28:17) and a sixth-place finish.
The men’s race in 2008 shifted back to a runner’s race, with Craig Alexander capturing his first Kona victory with a race-best 2:45:00 marathon. But in 2009 Lieto had his best Ironman Hawaii finish, when he raced to a 4:25:10 bike but just couldn’t hold off Craig Alexander. Since then, Lieto has built a reputation as the best cyclist in the sport, but an injury will keep him from racing this year
For the 2012 edition of the race, with the absence of dominant cyclists Chris Lieto and Lance Armstrong, many predict that this year will be a runner’s race. If an uberbiker were to arise and break away from the pack, we think it will be one of these five.
Sebastian Kienle (GER)
Just last month, we watched the German pro race to his first Ironman World Championship 70.3 victory in Vegas over an extremely deep field. Despite exiting the water three minutes down on the leaders, Kienle was aggressive—which he later called a “suicide mission”—and quickly worked to move to the front, extending his lead to 2:49 over the chase pack starting the run. Then he proved he wasn’t just a cyclist when he held off reigning champ Craig Alexander and broke the course record. While 70.3 Vegas is no Ironman Hawaii (and this will be Kienle’s first Kona), he showed he can take the heat (literally) and will be aggressive in pushing the pace on the bike. His top iron-distance finishes include a runner-up (behind Marino Vanhoenacker) at Ironman Frankfurt in July with a race-best 4:25:28 bike, and a 2011 runner-up and sub-eight-hour finish at Challenge Roth.
Marino Vanhoenacker (BEL)
The Belgian triathlete may not be necessarily known as a “supercyclist” but he always seems to have a decent swim and a top-three bike split paired with a solid run. He’s had multiple top-10 finishes in Kona (including third place in 2010). At the 2011 Ironman Austria, Vanhoenacker broke Luc Van Lierde’s 1997 iron-distance world record with a time of 7:45:58 with a field-leading 4:26:37 bike split. That mid-season effort may have cost him his Kona race—after a third-best bike split, Vanhoenacker DNF’ed in 2011. This season he didn’t have any world-record-shattering performances but he did have a solid victory at Ironman Frankfurt with a second-best 4:26:26 bike.
Jordan Rapp (USA)
This may be Jordan Rapp’s first attempt at Kona, but he’s no stranger to Ironman, with multiple Ironman wins under his belt. This year, he won Ironman Texas (with the second-fastest bike split) and the Ironman U.S. Pro Championship in New York—both over deep pro fields. New York he won with a race-fastest 4:26:34 bike split (the course had 3,900 feet of climbing) and a race-best 2:59:21 marathon.
Luke McKenzie (AUS)
Up-and-coming Aussie pro Luke McKenzie finished an impressive (and somewhat surprising) ninth last year in Kona, using the second-best bike split (4:24:15) followed by the ninth-best marathon (3:05:54).
Ronnie Schildknecht (SUI)
The six-time Ironman Switzerland champion DNF’ed in Kona last year but has finished as high as fourth in 2008. While the DNF a year ago might not sound promising, let’s not forget that last November, Schildknecht posted the fastest ever Ironman finish on American soil. He used a 4:19:55 bike split toward his finish time of 7:59:42 at Ironman Florida last year.
Tell us in the comments section below what you think. Will we see on of these athletes lead off of the bike, or will we see a pack leading the race coming into T2?
For more from the Ironman World Championship visit Triathlete.com/Kona2012.