Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Jan Frodeno accepts the Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year trophy. (April 17, 2016 – Source: Tom Dulat/Getty Images Europe)
Over the past two seasons we’ve seen devastatingly dominant performances from athletes Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf. These athletes are not just triathlon superstars. They are global sporting superstars. And that is a good thing for our sport. However, with such dominant performances there has been a great deal of hot air suggesting that the athletes who they are competing against are not up to scratch and that Ironman pro fields are spread so thin that there’s really no quality to these fields. I will address this point further below.
However I’ll start by saying this debate is not new. The response to the Chrissie phenomenon was the ugly, disingenuous model that saw Ironman athletes not being paid if they finished further than 8% of the winning time even if they came 2nd.
Mercifully, pros such as Julie Dibens helped to ensure that this was seen for the unfairness it was and with time there was an appreciation for the fact that in Chrissie Wellington, triathlon was seeing one of the greatest athletic performances in the sport’s history.
The performances of Frodo and Bird are bringing a similarly new dynamic; and I would like to provide some context for followers of the sport seeing these huge winning margins and asking themselves ‘What is happening here? Is this new? Are they just that good or are the fields just that slow?’
The New Breed of Long Distance Athlete
In 2010 Daniela Ryf and Jan Frodeno won WTS Seoul in sprint finishes:
What you are seeing over the last three seasons is the full development of athletes who have come through the era of fast and furious WTS racing and are applying the skills and speed of short course to the full Iron distance. We’ve seen similar things with Michellie Jones, Leanda Cave, Karen Smyers – all wonderful ITU world champions who went on to win Kona. And Mark Allen and Greg Welch also won short course World Titles before Kona.
However, this is different. Each of above athletes had weaknesses (albeit very small ones) – which they were able to compensate for with either an uber strong swim, bike or run or combination of two.
Jan and Daniela at their best appear to have none.
Two athletes who have consistently had the fastest swim, bike and run splits at major events is quite unprecedented. And not since the great Mark Allen have there been Ironman athletes, who if they decided to change focus, could go back and effectively mix it up with the short course athletes tomorrow.
As such, the stakes have risen to the point where the only legitimate future threat to someone like a Jan Frodeno (if not sick or injured) in the next few years will be be a fully fit Javier Gomez concentrating on long course. The Brownlees, should they go long also have the necessary speed and skills, but I’m not sure how the Yorkshire men would handle the Kona heat. We’ll get a preview in two weeks.
Otherwise how do you beat Frodo? I’ve been in this business a long time and don’t have a good answer.
Break away on the swim. Rough him up? He’ll sit on your toes while doing catch up drills. A group of strong riders taking turns at attacking him on the bike to sap his legs? He’ll sit, enjoy the ride, then take a turn to show he’s in control. Why not just wait to out run him? Well, he won an Olympic gold medal out sprinting the fastest kicker the sport has seen in Simon Whitfield. So it’s very, very tough.
Now that’s not to say he or anyone is unbeatable. New athletes do and always will break through. But the point I’m making is that at present he does represent a new dimension to the sport.
Similarly with Daniela. People have been incredulous as to how she has such stunning bike splits.
‘9 minutes faster than Chrissie on the bike at Roth! That’s impossible!’
Having trained both Chrissie and Daniela I can assure you it’s not. Both athletes are very similar in terms of raw power and watts. In fact Chrissie probably still the stronger. But what’s not well understood is how the bike skills Daniela has brought to Iron distance racing have changed the game. The Bird is easily 1-2 seconds faster than Chrissie around each corner. That adds up over 180km. And unlike Chrissie who didn’t start the sport until very late, Daniela has been racing the Swiss sprint circuit since she was 10, so had a 20 year head start on things like gearing, and technical aspects for climbing and descending.
It makes a huge difference. While all the focus for comparison is Kona (a course with no corners or technical components) people forget that at races like Ironman 70.3 World’s (Zell am See) she broke the field and rode 6 minutes into everyone on the downhill section. So yes, the next generation of long distance girls will need to lift their game technically, because you can’t afford to let the strongest rider pull away on course aspects that should be time neutral.
And if Daniela was to maintain current form and fitness (a big if in Ironman racing) where would the next threat come from? Good question. Because apart from Nicola Spirig (one of the last old-school athletes who also grew up in non-drafting races) I don’t see too many of the current short course female athletes with the necessary bike skills or power to make that jump. Unless it becomes draft-legal. Which is another topic altogether.
Hard Working Athletes Trying to Make a Living And so where does this leave our other hard working athletes trying to combat this new all-round generation? Out of luck and greatly under appreciated.
I can assure you that many of them are training just as hard as Jan and Daniela. The priority should be on setting up a pathway in which they can make a living from the sport and make the improvements that can only come with years of Ironman racing. If there was an event that paid $3000 for 10th place I guarantee you’d get 15 competitive athletes racing. But not when an athlete is basically losing money if they come 3rd, and the risk that a couple of Heavyweights do turn up at late notice.
I was of course very happy to see Daniela validate at Zurich. But I was equally heartbroken for her team-mate Emma Bilham, who was greatly overshadowed in second with a time that would have been competitive at any other race and good for the win at Zurich under normal circumstances.
We have all seen Roger Federer or Serena Williams dismantle players in the Top 10, 6-1, 6-1.
But we don’t then rush to attack the the player they have just beaten and say ‘geez, they don’t deserve to be paid. Why give them any money?’ Because there is an appreciation for the skill level involved.
It would do us all and the sport a great service to understand and embrace that without our base of hard working pros, there would be no way to measure greatness of our champs. Race courses change and weather conditions make records in our sport irrelevant. What is not irrelevant and the measure we have long used here at Trisutto is the distance you put between you and the 2nd athlete.
With Jan and Daniela over the past two seasons the performance side of the sport has never shone so bright. Let’s celebrate the brilliance, not denigrate our other athletes who are training and trying every bit as hard!