Happy birthday, Challenge Roth! This weekend, the triathlon world will celebrate Roth’s 20th year as a Challenge Family race. The event, which originated in 1984 as the Franconian Triathlon and then became Ironman Europe, grew from a small-but-spirited local race into an event that had the world talking about the little town in Germany with a big triathlon party. In 2002, a then-relatively unknown triathlon brand named Challenge, founded by Herbert and Alice Walchshöfer, took over the race and grew it by recruiting big-name sponsors and attracting athletes from beyond the borders of Europe. It worked. By 2010, Roth was both the largest and the fastest iron-distance race in the world, attracting thousands of age-group and professional athletes every year who came to experience the magic and fast times that only occur in Bavaria.
What’s it like? Challenge Family provided us with their favorite images from the past 20 years; keep scrolling to experience the spectacle.
2002: When Challenge took ownership of the race, it kept as many of the signature “parties” along the course as possible, including the Biermeile, an outdoor watering hole in Eckersmühlen, where there are beer tables for several hundred meters along the bike route.
2003: To grow the event (and the sport of triathlon), organizers invested in the pros by offering appearance fees and a substantial prize purse. The strategy paid off. The 2003 event showcased a throwdown between Lothar Leder and Chris “Macca” McCormack, which put the race on the map as a must-watch.
2004: The two-loop bike course is mostly flat, with several rolling sections and just a few short stabs including the Solarerberg, or Solar Hill. These areas with elevation gain are especially popular for spectators looking to prolong their view of their favorite athletes.
2005: Belinda Granger was a fixture in the early days of pro racing at Challenge Roth, and took the win in 2005. She is now a fixture in the town as pro liason and head cheerleader.
2006: One trademark is the volunteer and local support; more than 6,000 volunteers participate in the event each year and hundreds of athletes are put up in local homestays in the area.
2007: Local support has been a key element of Roth since its origins as the Franconian Triathlon. It’s not uncommon for children who grew up watching the race to eventually participate as adults.
2008: In past years, the race has included fireworks and sparklers along the course for the final finishers, long after the sun has set.
2009: A unique (and popular) component is the relay event for the full-distance.
2010: As the race grew in popularity, so too did the festivities. The pre-race athlete dinner has become quite popular with the pros, who often dress up in traditional German folk costumes.
2011: “Triathlon in Roth is like tennis in Wimbledon,” declared a headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
2012: Over the years, the popularity of the race has meant more spectators on the course, especially in areas like Solar Hill, where a “tunnel” for athletes forms every year—often, only as wide as bike handlebars and as loud as a touchdown at the Super Bowl.
2013: One legendary, yet secretive part, of Challenge Roth is the post-race party, where athletes gather to celebrate their accomplishments on the course. Though stories about the festivities abound, photos do not—cameras and cell phones must be left at the door.
2014: Roth isn’t only for the pros. Over the years, plenty of age-groupers, including legends like Sister Madonna Buder (the “Iron Nun”), have traveled to Germany for the event as well. But get your registration button ready; the race sells out in less than a minute!
2015: Beer shower, anyone?
2016: While world records are often set on the fast course, it’s common to see the pros (like Daniela Ryf) return to the finish line to hand out medals as the clock nears the final cut-off time.
2017: Beware. You may find yourself in an impromptu spectator run “tunnel.”
2018: Why is the course so fast? Smooth roads, ideal weather conditions, a fast course, and of course the crowds pushing athletes to new heights—like the sprint finish between Lucy Charles-Barclay and Daniela Bleymehl.
2019: The final finish takes place in the packed arena, with thousands turning out for the last athletes.
2021: After a one-year hiatus for the COVID-19 pandemic, Roth returned with a smaller field and limited volunteer support. This weekend, it’ll be back with full fields (and full party status).