The second stop on the ITU calendar saw the world’s best short course triathletes head to the North Atlantic island of Bermuda, and after two standout races at the venue last year that witnessed a Norwegian men’s podium sweep and local hero Flora Duffy charge to a solo victory, there was a lot to live up to. While there might not have been the drama of 2018, the racing again produced a fitting spectacle, with plenty of interesting takeaways. Here 220 columnist Tim Heming takes a closer look…
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1. Consistent Zafares is now a consistent winner. USA’s Katie Zafares has been both upbeat and up in the top 10 since she first competed at World Series level in 2014. But while her ranking has steadily improved, it could be levelled that until this season 17 podiums had only resulted in a single victory. Not any more. Zafares win in Bermuda means a 100% start to 2019 as she backed up success in Abu Dhabi and justified her world No 1 ranking. She is now, resoundingly, the woman to beat.
2. Gomez is back and doesn’t look as if he’s been away. The five-time ITU world champion had not raced on the World Series since the Grand Final in Rotterdam in 2017, but after an ominous fifth place in a World Cup race in New Zealand, his runner-up position here showed his thoroughbred qualities. There are plenty of ‘ifs’ and ‘maybes’, but while Gomez’s return might threaten most of the field, it could also signal good news for the Brownlees. The tactical nuances of triathlon racing mean that while the Spaniard was once their arch-nemesis, he could now be a staunch ally in trying to carve out swim-bike breakaways to distance the faster runners, giving all three their best shot at glory.
3. The top step is Learmonth’s challenge. While neutrality should be an important part of a reporter’s repertoire, it’s hard not to be swayed by Jess Learmonth. In Bermuda, we once again saw her honest endeavours at the head of the race (and honest appraisal afterwards), but while it secured a fifth WTS podium, it’s tricky to see how they’ll be turned into victories any time soon. Her run form is improving, and little should be read into the 10km splits given the lion share of work she puts in on the bike, but leaving T2 having shaken off a runner of the calibre of Zafares or previously Flora Duffy, is her only chance of victory in the short term – and that looks unlikely.
4. Bermuda is a corker of a venue, not only due to Corkscrew Hill. Even without the drama of last year’s World Series races, the tiny island still made for a successful stopover on the ITU calendar. It was a shame for all that Duffy, whose face adorned every giant promotional poster on the island, had to withdraw from the elite racing (she did cycle in an age-group relay), but this second edition showed what a great course – with 10 climbs up the steep, twisting Corkscrew Hill – engaging crowds and plenty of drama can achieve. Bermuda hosts the Grand Final in 2021 and let’s hope it continues as a WTS staple thereafter.
5. Brownlee misses Brownlee. Jonathan had an off day in Bermuda, but it was still clear he missed older brother Alistair’s legs and enthusiastic encouragement on the bike. Despite the Yorkshireman’s best efforts early on, the large front pack never looked organised or committed enough to keep the chasers at bay, and Jonny even looked to be remonstrating with Vincent Luis as their lead perished. The frustration was understandable – particularly on a course where breakaways have been shown to stick – and having Alistair there would surely have changed the contest’s complexion.
6. Luis remains an enigma. Vincent Luis looks to have the qualities to be the best triathlete in the world – including a dangerous sprint finish. Despite Dorian Coninx’s win here, Luis is still the pick of a strong crop of Frenchmen, having won the past two WTS Grand Finals and looking head-and-shoulders the best triathlete at the new Super League format at the start of the year. In non-wetsuit conditions in Bermuda, he even led out the swim ahead of the likes of Slovakian Richard Varga and South African Henri Schoeman and while Luis didn’t dominate on the bike, he looked well placed to capitalise on the run, before his challenge wilted in the final kilometres as he slipped to fourth. It brought back memories of the Rio Olympics in 2016 where he looked perfectly placed to win a medal over the final 10km but ended an ultimately disappointing seventh. While Luis has the talent, a sense remains that apply enough pressure and there’s a chance he’ll falter.
7. Norwegians look ever-more threatening. The Norwegian endurance set-up may be best known for its middle distance running family, the remarkable Ingebrigtsens, but its triathlon programme – small but intensely focussed – is now rivalling the leading training squads in the world. The triumvirate of Casper Stornes, Kristian Blummenfelt, Gustav Iden took last year’s Bermuda race by storm, and while 2019 didn’t play out to the same script, they still affected the race greatly, hunting down the break on the bike and allowing Iden to repeat his third-place finish of last year. But it is not just the men’s side worth noting. Lotte Miller might have finished eighth in Bermuda, but played an integral role driving the bike breakaway alongside Zafares and Learmonth and retained a podium position almost to the last lap of the run.
8. Non Stanford is running. Faster. It won’t be a race the Welsh triathlete will cherish, she languished 33rd in the swim, 74sec off the pace and didn’t even make the chasing bike pack, but she did produce the fastest run split of the day – rare for someone not in contention for a podium position – to finish with 34.21 for 13th place. It shows the new training switch to Joel Filliol’s squad is paying dividends, if less through the intensity of the sessions, but for consistency and staying injury-free. Yokohama may come too soon for her to challenge for the necessary podium that would go a long way towards Olympic selection, but after fifth-place in Abu Dhabi, there are signs she can be a genuine threat – and of the British women, she possesses the fastest final leg that will be critical come Tokyo.
9. British men need points. Jonathan Brownlee, the only British man racing, finished 11th, to underline the current void in British men’s short course racing, and it’s slack that others need to pick up if Team GB is to comfortably qualify all three individual Olympic berths for Tokyo. Jonathan and the consistent Tom Bishop should play their part, but with no Alistair Brownlee at present, the next generation of Gordon Benson, Marc Austin and Grant Sheldon – all junior or world Under-23 medallists – hasn’t burst through either, and it’s a lot to ask of either the developing Barclay Izzard or Ben Dijkstra. Alex Yee was impressive for second in Abu Dhabi, so Britain should be fine in cementing its powerhouse status, but it is a little quiet at WTS level at present.
10. Yokohama Olympic qualification race is almost here. Already. The first chance of securing one of two necessary podiums for Olympic qualification (the other being the Tokyo test event) for most British elite triathletes is now just three weeks away, yet it feels that only Jess Learmonth and Alex Yee are in anything like the form they’d desire. The British selection policy is routinely written to try and put a belt and braces on potential medal-winning triathletes going to Tokyo, rather than a freak race earning an unlikely candidate a spot. But Yokohama in May could be the best chance for someone outside the obvious contenders to stake a claim. The current start-lists include Bishop, Brownlee and Yee for the men, and Holland, Stanford, Learmonth and Taylor-Brown for the women.