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Last Weekend Now is your Monday morning rundown of what’s happening in pro triathlon, brought to you with commentary by Brad Culp. (Ed note: So yell at him if you don’t like the comments.)
If you’re a fan of NBA basketball or NHL hockey, you know that some sports just get more intense in the playoffs. The World Triathlon Championship Series just finished its own version of a five-year playoff to decide the field for the upcoming Olympic triathlon and, just like those real sports, things got a little crazy.
After this weekend’s WTCS Leeds, we know less than ever about who will win the six individual medals up for grabs in Tokyo. Before COVID, we were certain that Katie Zaferes and Vincent Luis were the overwhelming favorites to win gold. A pandemic later, it’s in question if Zaferes will even be flying to Japan, and we don’t know the severity of the injury that kept Luis out of his final Tokyo tune-up (but we do know he’ll have some competition for the top spot when he does return).
There’s a lot to digest from Leeds, but I think we have to start with 23-year-old Briton Alex Yee, who went from uncertain Olympian to odds-on favorite after the absolute ass kicking he put on the world’s fastest triathletes on Sunday.
The Men: Hello to A New British Star, Goodbye (?) to An Old One
Up until Sunday, there was a legitimate conversation in Great Britain about whether or not Yee or Alistair Brownlee should get the second spot on Team GB. Brownlee ended that discussion very early in the swim by dunking American Chase McQueen and getting disqualified, even though he didn’t learn about it until the final lap of the run.
I’m very embarrassed about being Dq’d. The swim action was completely unintentional and I’ve had worse done to me in every race World Series race I’ve ever done. However it is a field of play decision and I chose not to protest it.
— Alistair Brownlee (@AliBrownleetri) June 6, 2021
Back to Yee, because he’s actually going to Tokyo and he’s going to be very hard to beat. When the Olympic odds come out in a few weeks—and yes, you can bet on the Olympic triathlon race—I fully expect Yee to be the slight favorite over Morgan Pearson, Kristian Blummenfelt, and Vincent Luis. Hayden Wilde could come in with some longer odds because he hasn’t raced much recently, and that could be the best bet of the race. (I’ll have an article about how and where to bet on the Olympic Tri once the odds are posted.)
Yee managed to run 18 seconds faster than Pearson, which put him at the line 25 seconds ahead. Pearson has the slowest T2 of anyone in the top 15, which ultimately didn’t affect his second-place finish, but the four seconds he lost to the rest of the contenders might be a big deal if we end up with a sprint finish in Tokyo.
Belgian Marten Van Riel backed up his seventh-place showing in Yokohama with a third-place showing in Leeds, which matches the best WTCS finish of his career. Spain’s Fernando Alarza reminded us that he’s still in the medal discussion, finishing fourth, but it was Wilde from New Zealand in fifth who made an even bigger statement. He went off the front with Yee for 5K before fading back, but it was an impressive showing for the 24-year-old who was only able to race once over the past 22 months.
When it comes to raw run speed, Yee, Pearson, and Wilde have shown that they have a gear the others can’t match. If those three can keep things comfortable on the bike, it’s going to be hard to keep any of them off the podium in Tokyo. Blummenfelt and Luis have also proven they’re capable of running around 29:30 off the bike, and that’s probably what it’s going to take to leave Japan with a heavy medal.
The Women: Lucy Overshadows Everyone Ahead of Her; Who Wins Gold?
No disrespect to the women who finished first through fourth, but the biggest story of the day was Lucy Charles-Barclay and her holy-shit-did-she-really-just-finish-fifth-in-her-WTCS-debut performance. LCB did something that no other Ironman athlete—not even the mighty Daniela Ryf—could pull off. If non-draft, Olympic-distance racing were still a thing (remember the Life Time Series?) Charles-Barclay would be untouchable.
Not only was LCB’s performance exceptional on its own, but it had a massive impact on how the podium shook out. The only three women who were able to swim with Charles-Barclay were Maya Kingma (NED), Jessica Learmouth (GBR) and Sophie Coldwell (GBR), and those three were able to get away on the bike to ultimately finish 1-2-3, respectively.
Kingma proved that her third-place finish in Yokohama was no fluke and that she can ride away from just about anyone in the world. Even though four women were able to run faster, the 80-second gap at T2 was way too much to overcome. If the last two races are any indication of what to expect in Tokyo, it’s likely that the winner will come from a breakaway.
Bermuda’s Flora Duffy was nearly 40 seconds behind the leaders out of the water, and ultimately had to settle for fourth because of it, even though she turned in the fastest run of the day (with a very impressive 33:47 split). Her run is clearly on form heading into this Olympics, and she will surely do everything in her power (which she has a lot of) to make sure she’s not the one getting dropped on the bike again.
If I were to pick a favorite for Tokyo, it’d be a toss-up between Duffy and Britain’s Georgia Taylor-Brown, who has had her Olympic ticket in hand for basically two years and has had the luxury of laying low to gear up for late July. The last time we saw Taylor-Brown race, she finished runner-up to Duffy at the Karlovy Vary World Cup last September.
Not that there couldn’t be an American or two (or none) on the podium. What became clear on Sunday is that Taylor Spivey will likely be the third American to join Summer Rappaport and Taylor Knibb in Tokyo. She has finished sixth, fourth, and fourth in her last three WTCS races, while Katie Zaferes has finished 18th, 22nd, and fifth. There will certainly be a debate between the five-person USAT selection committee, especially given that Zaferes won a world title the last time there was a real season, but current form is hard to overlook.
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On the Brownlee DQ
I have mixed feelings on Brownlee’s DQ for dunking McQueen during the swim. Coming from a water polo background, the thought of someone getting tossed out of an event for something that wouldn’t even be an ordinary foul in polo seems absurd. But I’m also trying to remind myself that triathlon isn’t water polo, and intentional contact isn’t supposed to be part of the sport.
I don’t buy for a second that it was unintentional. The video leaves zero room for interpretation. I’m more interested in what happened in the moments before the five-second clip that was shown on the broadcast. Clearly Brownlee felt someone slighted him, and McQueen ended up under water for half a second because of it. Here’s what Brownlee had to say to 22o Triathlon on it.
And for his part, here’s what McQueen had to say about the now infamous incident:
“Honestly, nothing was happening besides just standard racing until you saw what you saw in the video. I can’t say if it were intentional or not—only Ali can—but the judges caught it on tape, and they made the decision. I saw he got DQ’d, so I knew it had to be pretty bad for them to do that in Leeds, without a protest. Alistair is someone I grew up idolizing in the sport and I have crazy respect for his work ethic and achievements. I was thinking to myself after the race that, if I were going to get dunked by anyone, at least it was by that legend at the front of the race. To be out there mixing it up with him, in potentially his last World Triathlon race, was something I’ll never forget. Physical racing and battling for position is one thing, but when it turns intentional, that’s when it’s no longer fair racing. Let’s hope it was the first of the two.”