There was a moment in the World Triathlon Championship Series race in Leeds yesterday where Taylor Spivey pulled up alongside iron-woman Lucy Charles-Barclay on the bike and brief words were exchanged.
It was at the point when it looked like Charles-Barclay’s fairytale was, if not unravelling, at least starting to fray at the edges. Even more than expected, the 27-year-old had been a torpedo in the swim. Not just in how she’d sped across Waterloo Lake at such a speed, but how she’d also ripped a hole in the side of this race to sink the hopes of numerous world-class short-course triathletes trailing in her wake.
But now, after a stuttering transition that had seen three rivals fly up the road, she was in a trio with Spivey and Brazilian Vittoria Lopes. They were losing time, looked unorganized as a group, and the grim reality of short-course racing was about to land with all its fury as they’d be swallowed up by the chasers. Charles-Barclay’s flaws were to be laid bare.
So, they had a quick chat. Worked out their roles. The mighty Flora Duffy—the best bike handler in the sport—caught up to the group and turned three into four. Problem solved. They were away again. Nine laps. Twists, turns, climbs, descent over 37.9 kilometers. They weren’t to be caught.
“I feel like I learnt a lot during that, which was really cool,” Charles-Barclay said afterwards. “I feel that every race I’ll get better.”
And then reflected. “Actually, I became more confident with every lap.”
It played out thus. Charles-Barclay often took the lead on non-technical sections as the four made it to T2 with just three up the road and a sizable gap on a main pack stocked with world champions and World Series winners.
Then it just got better from there.
There was no holding Duffy over the 10K run, but Charles-Barclay had the temerity to take down Spivey, world ranked number two, 11 World Triathlon podiums to her name, and with all the incentive as she vied for the final spot on the US’s Olympic team.
We should never read too much into run splits in World Triathlon races, but Charles-Barclay stopped the clock at 35:07. After speedster Beth Potter, she was the fastest of seven high-calibre British women.
More to the point she finished fifth. FIFTH! It was not just her first ever World Triathlon race, it was her first ever proper short-course triathlon.
“I’d no idea what my run legs would be like. I don’t normally bike that hard, so just to be able to run and put something in at the end I was very happy.
“I thought top 10 would be amazing, but to come fifth exceeds expectations for sure. I only found out Wednesday last week, I’d be racing. I was umming and ahhing as I hadn’t really done the training.”
We know there was a lot of hype, but did anyone expect this?
Enduring 140.6 miles, most of it in straight lines on a TT bike is one thing, taking on a high-profile Olympic distance race against the fastest triathletes in the world with all the technicalities and surges of crit-style racing is completely different.
The truth is we’ve had pros quietly question the wisdom of even allowing Charles-Barclay to race in Leeds. Better judges than this writer warned of dropping a long-course exponent with such little experience into the middle of a WTCS race where she could bring down half the peloton, ruining the Olympic ambitions of others.
Perhaps, when she was cramming transition practice in last week, some of those thoughts crossed her mind too. Or maybe they didn’t, because increasingly there seems to be something that sets Charles-Barclay apart from mere mortal multi-sporters.
Maybe it’s just that ability to launch headlong into new challenges without fear, and with a ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ smile on her face.
Maybe that was what made her attempt a first Ironman in the UK in 2014, having never done a triathlon before and thinking a mountain bike would suffice.
Maybe it’s what sent her to Kona as a precocious 24-year-old neo-pro in 2017 to lead the women’s race for almost six hours and return home with the first of three consecutive runner-up finishes.
Maybe it’s what made her re-pass Sarah Crowley for one of those second places the final miles in 2019 when nobody told her you’re not supposed to do that sort of thing along the Queen K.
And maybe this year it’s what’s made her throw herself into the super sprint Super League Arena Games in London and the British Olympic 1,500m swimming trials, where on both occasions she finished runner-up and even achieved the Olympic standard in the pool (although Team GB set a more stringent qualifying mark for its Olympic swimmers).
So, after all that, perhaps a WTCS debut in front of a home crowd in Leeds didn’t seem such a big leap of faith. It was still a mighty effort though. And as a lesson to chase your dreams and not cap expectations, this sport can rarely have witnessed a finer one.
The obvious question: Does she stick with it? A fifth-place performance any Olympic hopeful would be happy with, a finish ahead of many going to the Games in Tokyo. Does she work a little more on those transition and handling skills and see if she can get even better? First, there’s some long-course business to attend to, but then perhaps we’ll see her again. The Brits may already have picked the Olympic team for Tokyo, but the Paris Olympics is only three years away. The Commonwealth Games is hosted in Birmingham next year too, with three places for England available—and Charles-Barclay has said she’s interested in one of those spots.
“I come from a swim background where it was all about chasing that Olympic dream and I still haven’t given up on that,” she said. “I just hope I can do it in triathlon.”
A final perspective. While there have been numerous wins, it’s been said about Charles-Barclay that hers is bridesmaid status.
Second place three times in Kona. Second place at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Second in Challenge Miami in March. Second in those swimming trials. Even second in the Super League Arena Games in London.
Yet there’s never been a hint she views these races as disappointments or setbacks, just achievements, learning experiences, and adventures.
Being the best at Ironman and the Olympic distance at the same time doesn’t come easy—even the great Jan Frodeno did them at different times, a gold medal before moving on to long-course—and one race in Leeds doesn’t make it so, but right now, anything seems possible for Team Charles-Barclay.