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Last Weekend Now: Ironman Gets Virtual, Pros Get Some Free Time

With racing canceled everywhere—and trailheads and bike paths more crowded than ever—what does the race scene even look like for 2020?

Last Weekend Now is our weekly column covering pro triathlon and racing. It is typically written by Brad Culp, but Brad is off having a baby right now, so we’re covering for him this week. Which feels a little bit like we got the short end of this stick. ‘Here’s my column covering pro racing. Oh, there is no more racing? Good luck.’

Virtual racing is virtually the same

The biggest racing news of the weekend was Ironman pushing up its plans to get into the virtual world, having already established dominance in the real world. The M-dot announced it’ll be launching on April 1 a virtual training club and virtual races, with virtual pros competing for actual money. How much will the races cost? TBD. What is the schedule and length of the races? TBD. How will they prevent cheating amongst age-groupers? TBD. Will there be 70.3 Worlds spots available? Oh, you betcha. And, no, this is not an April Fool’s joke.

If you read between the lines of the announcement, it’s clear Ironman doesn’t just want to host a Zwift ride, it wants to compete with Zwift with its own platform and app. It’s also clear those Ironman developers have been working on these plans for some time, and now find themselves with about 10 days to finish what probably was planned to take months. One can only imagine this will go about as well as Ironman’s new website roll-out.

On the one hand, kudos to Ironman for making the best of things once COVID-19 forced them to cancel everything else on the calendar. On the other hand, have they met their clientele? These are not people for whom a half-baked lack of answers and details goes over well.

There is also a large subset of the triathlete population for whom virtual racing is, uh, how did Starky put it: “…like comparing masturbation to porn versus actually having sex.” Not everyone is going to be interested in computer avatars and pretend courses. Not everyone excels in tiny cramped sweaty spaces.

Apparently, it’s finally Lionel’s chance to shine.

You get some money, and you get some money, and you

There’s a reason Ironman won’t have a hard time convincing pros to do the head-to-head virtual races they have planned (two women one day, two men the other), whatever the prize purse is. That reason is: pros don’t have shit else going on right now. And they definitely don’t have any money coming in.

You want to pay a Kona top 20 finisher for some personalized over-the-phone advice right now? You probably could.

That’s why it was actually heart-warming news—putting aside our cynical facade for only a second—to see the PTO dish out money to the pros to help them pay bills and fly back from whatever race location they were stuck in before everything got bad.

Now (cynical facade back on), will the PTO have any money left if they just gave it all away?

They say yes. We say maybe. The poor Collins Cup—the little race that couldn’t—had to be understandably canceled again. And we really thought this year was going to be its year. Let’s all hope, for the world’s sake, that we’re not still in a place come the fall where races can’t happen—and ideally the PTO gets something else up and going by then.

Tokyo? No

A race that won’t be happening? Probably all the ones in Tokyo in July. Right now, the IOC is still plowing ahead toward the planned date, but with the track and field governing body (World Athletics) calling on the Olympics to be postponed and countries starting to pull out of the Games, Olympic officials are finally beginning to talk some sense and plan for a back-up plan.

For most of us, race cancelations are annoying and expensive—but that’s it. We’re not prime-of-life athletes who have been training our whole lives for this one opportunity. Most of the Olympians are. Let’s do them all a solid and give them a real chance to compete in a real postponed Games without the threat of a global pandemic. By which we mean: stop going on group rides and wash your damn hands!