At first it’s an Instagram spat between Jan Frodeno and Lionel Sanders over who is the biggest coffee snob. Then, as Frodo puts it: “It escalates pretty quickly.”
Frodo asks followers to suggest a summer challenge. Sanders offers to pay Frodo’s expenses to do battle at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Before you can say “Battle Royale,” a tri heavyweight contest is announced.
Mano a mano. Tormenter-in-chief versus taunter-in-chief. Multiple world champion versus YouTuber extraordinaire. Not Floyd Mayweather Jr. v. Logan Paul, but “the pure essence of the sport” (as the press release states). Frodeno v. Sanders. Bring. It. On.
The poster looks like they’re ready to go 12 rounds. But if the head-to-head record is anything to go by, it’ll be stopped in the first. Frodeno leads 8-1. That one is when he hobbled to the finish in Kona 2017 nursing a bad back.
“It’s no secret that the tri community wants a battle between them,” said organiser Felix Rüdiger, who is also Frodeno’s agent—and sounds like he might be slightly regretting this “crazy idea.”
“Every race where Jan and Lionel are together, it’s always about them. That’s all people talk about,” he said
The details: Iron distance? Of course. A 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on the bike, and a 26.2-mile run, on a purpose-designed course—flat and fast—in Allgäu, Bavaria in southern Germany on July 18.
Don’t say world record
But this isn’t just about the Frodo v. Lionel rivalry. It’s also about one, or maybe both, having a crack at Frodeno’s own world record.
“Once it became apparent Jan wanted to take a crack at the fastest iron distance time ever he needed someone that could push him mentally to the limit—and that was Lionel,” said Sanders’ straight-talking coach David Tilbury-Davis.
“That’s the sub-text,” event sponsors Zwift confirm, although Rüdiger plays it down. A little.
“It’s definitely interesting, but if we would just go for the record, we’d also name the event differently. We’d call it World Record Attempt No. 1. Or something.” Fair point. “We just want to showcase a perfect race and a battle at the end. If it’s a battle against time then even better.”
Rüdiger refused our 7:29:59 bait, pointing out no one has ever raced on this brand new course before, but he was happy to discuss Frodeno’s existing world best mark of 7:35:39 in Roth in 2016—where, he points out, Frodeno had a bike crash, and now aerodynamics are better, and now shoe tech has improved vastly too.
More sub-text: Expect faster.
But it won’t be a real record (I hear you cry). Maybe not, but we’ve already had that testy debate once this year about the Sub-7/Sub-8 Project, and this time there’s definitely “no drafting, no illegal tactics, no outside support or pacemakers.” (The exact Battle Royale draft distance hasn’t officially been set yet).
“Sub-7 is a different approach,” Rüdiger explains. “They are creating, not a different sport, but a different discipline. Our goal was a fair race on a fair course. To be very close to Ironman racing. Or even ‘more’ Ironman racing than Ironman racing, which has become group riding and tactics.”
To distance it even further from a stunt, it’s also not about the money. Or at least, not exclusively.
“It’s definitely not about money,” said Rüdiger. “Whatever they might get from sponsors will be similar to prize money at Frankfurt. It is about them and being part of something different and having their own control.”
How to watch
A four-lap swim in Grossen Alpsee Lake will be followed by five flat loops on closed roads before there’s a four-lap marathon around the scenic landscape of Allgäu. Event organizers from a local race that has been running for 30 years will help with logistics. It’ll also almost certain to be a wetsuit swim. (Just once in three decades has it been too warm.)
And in the name of transparency and fairness, they’ll be paying for their own independent doping control.
Given the quiet location and COVID protocols, there’s no desire for the course to be lined with fans. Instead, it’ll be beamed into homes around the world free of charge.
“The most important thing is it’s a broadcast product,” said Rüdiger. “We’re not aiming to entertain 100,000 triathletes—triathletes will watch this wherever it is. A much wider audience is the goal.
“We saw it with our spontaneous ‘Tri At Home’ that reached 320 million. It wasn’t just triathletes in Germany, it was also on CNN Malaysia.
“It’ll be a mixture between a normal triathlon, a boxing match, and Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2-hour attempt. Everyone in the whole world will watch this for free, and might watch the best long-distance triathlon broadcast ever.”
It’s a bold ambition—especially with just two triathletes on course. The broadcast intricacies are under wraps for now, but expect a data-heavy production and plenty of detailed analysis throughout.
Is that where Zwift comes in? Maybe, but the Zwift investment is more because the two triathletes are already so invested in Zwift.
“Jan and Lionel are the two most popular Zwifters on the platform,” said Zwift project manager Richard Melik. “They rank above all the pro cyclists in terms of their followers.” [FYI, Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas is third and Lucy Charles-Barclay is fourth.]
“With both athletes doing 80%-plus of their training on Zwift anyway, it was a no-brainer for us to become involved. We have some cool plans for athlete engagements both before and after the race, but for us the key story is to follow these two legends as they go head-to-head and hopefully push each other to a new world record.”
There’s that world record talk again.
There’s plenty of time for viewer innovation. But even with all that, will the wider world really tune in for a seven-plus hour event?
“If that’s the argument, then it’s always boring,” Rüdiger said. “If you watch Frankfurt, it’s boring as Jan is leading from the first minute and then it’s over. Ironman is also boring, because the broadcast is not optimized for live, but for the NBC show afterwards.” Touché. There is, after all, some room for improvement from the status quo.
But what about Kona?
Both Sanders and Frodeno have Kona as a priority in October, but Sanders still needs to seal his qualification in Coeur d’Alene this Sunday—where he’ll face off against another up-and-coming rival in the young Sam Long.
Chasing one of the best iron-distance triathletes on his home turf just three weeks later seems to be a little disruptive to best-laid training plans.
“Athletes like these relish battles,” coach Tilbury-Davis said. “As a coach, sometimes knowing an athlete’s career aspirations you have to adapt to unique opportunities.” Indeed.
Sanders may be the underdog here, but he does have four Ironman titles, 30 half-Ironman victories, and the Canadian hour cycling record to his name.
“It’s not a PR stunt,” Tilbury-Davis said. “Two world class athletes are going after a fast time, and they are still racing an Ironman under all relevant Ironman rules, as you would see enforced in Kona.”
“He was more than up for the challenge,” Frodeno said. “I have the highest respect for Lionel and the idea of racing him motivates me to get up every day and continue to improve. He is the rising star of our sport, but I am not willing to step down just yet.”
Frodeno’s habitual race schedule would typically see him head to Frankfurt or Roth, or even Klagenfurt in Austria, for his mid-summer Ironman race. But with events shunted to the autumn, they will fall too close to the Big Dance in Hawaii.
For Sanders—not one to shy from hyperbole—it represents “the opportunity of a lifetime. A victory over Jan would likely be the highlight of my entire career.”
How will it play out? While there are few things certain in triathlon, one is that Frodeno is guaranteed to put several minutes into the Canadian in the swim. Another is that Sanders will lay down an obscene number of watts trying to chase back up.
The biggest question of all: Does Lionel have a chance? Coach Tilbury-Davis: “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think he has!”
You’ll have to tune in to watch. A live broadcast will be available on tri-battle.com starting at 2:40 AM EDT Sunday, July 18.