Jan won the Battle. Did we win the war (for the sport)?

by Tim Ford

The last few years we have seen a lot of innovation in triathlon. Some things are brand new concepts like the Collins Cup (taken from golf). Others are returns to older styles of racing like Super League Triathlon (taken from the old F1 races). And others were born out of necessity during the pandemic like the Arena Games (taken from… eSports?).

Next year we will see an exhibition between two men and two women attempting to go under 7 and 8 hours for a full distance race. Personally, I am excited about seeing these athletes try and push to see exactly how fast it can be done.

The ‘purists’ have rightfully pointed out though that it isn’t the same as racing under ironman rules. Enter: the Tri Battle Royale.

Check my Twitter mentions and you will see I am either called a Jan Frodeno fanboy or a Lionel Sanders hater. So when it was announced that the two athletes that I am mentioned in relation to the most (because they are actually my two favourite long-course athletes) in a face-to-face, winner takes all race, I was beyond excited to see another new format of racing be developed and launched. The best part? I only had to wait a month!

The Performances from Lionel and Jan

Now before I take a look at my thoughts around this new format it is imperative that we talk about the performances. I really want to start with Lionel Sanders.

Lionel has been plagued in recent years by a number of poor iron distance performances. From when he first exploded onto the long-course scene, it has been a long time since we have seen him deliver a well-executed swim, bike and run over 140.6 miles. This isn’t news. He knows it, you know it. We all know it.

I never expected Lionel to beat Jan, and in a lot of ways the actual Tri Battle went how many of us expected: Jan dropped him in the swim and they were never together again.

Who cares?

I think that when you look at Lionel’s performance within the context of this event it is even more impressive. Imagine having the race of your life (how amazing was that swim?!?) and you are still minutes behind your only other competitor every time. I have to think Lionel knew what he was up against and to go into it knowing this, knowing that he could break the previous world record and still lose… Nothing I have seen him do demonstrates the guts and strength this man has more.

Lionel may have lost the Tri Battle Royale, but I think he won big in Germany. He fell apart a bit on the run but still finished his fastest-ever iron distance race. Plus that swim was such a breakthrough for Lionel, which I think could completely change the way he has to approach races in the future.

Then there is Jan Frodeno…

The greatest triathlete to ever do the sport and in my opinion, one of the greatest athletes in the world.

It was a masterclass. A masterclass delivered solo. All day, forcing himself to just keep going faster. He swam and ran slower than he did when he set the previous record but when you are riding a 3:55 bike split (Andrew Starykowicz’s ‘world record’ is only 23 seconds faster) it doesn’t matter.

I could write pages about Jan’s performance but I think it is just testament to the caliber of the man that he absolutely crushed his own world record and my thoughts immediately went to ‘how much faster can he go?’

If you are a fan of the sport, be grateful that you are getting to live through a period with this guy at the top.

A Review of the Tri Battle

Now, onto the actual event. I have done this sort of ‘review’ for both the PTO Championship and Arena Games and this may have been my attempt to write about the race without just writing about the race, but I will never admit it.

What I liked

The Format

Straight away, the head-to-head nature of this event appealed to me a lot. There is no hiding, there is no wondering what is going on further back in the field. It is very easy to understand who is who and what they are doing.

The inspiration they took from boxing with the pre-race conference, the robes and the designated colours for each athlete also added to the event.

The way they selected the course for this format of racing was also great. Having a line they could follow under the water and the ITU-style rounded corners on the swim and the layout of the course made sense. It also made it easy to quantify how far the athletes were apart. Maybe some distance markers on the buoy so you could measure the distance by sight?

Onto the bike and as soon as they started going through the ‘aid stations’ I immediately thought to myself, ‘every race needs this!’ Having the athletes be able to get their fuel on the move without even needing to slow down contributed to the extremely fast bike splits.

Even the velodrome style u-turn. I will admit, I nearly had a heart attack the first time Lionel went though and my heart rate spiked everytime they took the turn. It was exciting and a little scary and it was great.

The Coverage

This one is going to come up again in the things that I think can be improved but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of positives.

Having the guests jump in throughout the coverage was a highlight and having Emma talk about watching Jan do what he does best was a real highlight. Cam Wurf as well -- every triathlon that Cam Wurf isn’t racing needs to have Cam Wurf commentating. Make it so, internet!

Paul Kaye and Helle Frederiksen did an excellent job keeping the energy up for nearly 8 hours in a race where there wasn’t actually a whole lot to talk about.

Even the broadcast: the footage was good and the inclusion of power, speed, and heart rate made it very easy for me to know exactly what was happening in the race. For an event put on for two people without the budget (I assume) of something like the PTO Championship, I think it was exceptional.

(I really think we have to give the PTO a fair bit of credit for this. Whether it is because of them or not, coverage has improved at long-distance racing a lot in the last 12 months.)

The Hype

One thing that I think might get overlooked about this event is the masterclass in promotion that we saw. I think we can all accept that this event was not pulled off in a month and that there was a lot going on behind the scenes before Lionel called out Jan. But again, who cares? It was engaging! Exciting and gave us all a lot to talk about. This is the sort of water cooler moment we need more of.

I think back to Kona 2019: you had Lange, the defending champion, having to face Jan who wanted his title back... yet there was little to no hype in the pre-race build up. Having the athletes as characters who help to create conversations is critical to getting people excited. Add in the whispers about a world record attempt, how this might impact Sub7 Sub8 and the discussions I think that will follow about how fast a person can go… This is all critical to the growth of the sport.

Picking Lionel to be the one to go up against Jan was a stroke of genius for building that hype too as he has an extremely loyal (I get their messages) fanbase that helped take this event to another level.

What I think can be improved

The Outcome

I can already sense people getting ready to abuse me for this, but put down your pitchforks and read what I have to say. Look at the statistics: objective statistics will show you that when these two race, Jan wins. I saw so many people saying that it will be a battle for a few minutes in the swim and then it will be the Jan show. I was one of them and love it or hate it, we were right.

I want to see these two battle it out, and I know Macca suggested breaking it up with different events on different days. My idea is simple: still have it as a battle. Still have it as a world record attempt. But make it a pursuit race.

Using the statistics, you could have worked out a rough handicap that Lionel would need to make this a true battle. Then… Let him go first. In hindsight there would have needed to be a 16-minute handicap, but imagine the way the dynamic changes. Lionel knows Jan is coming for him. Jan wants to catch him and at some point on that run they come together. Both results are legitimate times and can count for records, but the dynamic and the story would have changed.

Having that gap slowly getting smaller and smaller all day would mean that Lionel wasn’t behind all day.

Again, this doesn’t mean that the race was bad. I think it was epic but this would have added a whole new aspect to it that I personally would have loved to see.

The Coverage

I said it would come up again and I only have some minor points to make about the coverage. I heard the term “kings” 56,000 times and even joked about it being a drinking game on Twitter.

Any event has its struggles and to execute this in a pandemic was amazing. I know they had some issues which meant we didn’t get to see Lionel too much. Again, I know they had the intention to do it so it feels a bit pointless to say it, but yeah, I wish we saw more Lionel in the coverage.

I also think that having the graphics on screen were excellent and I know how hard and expensive this part of a broadcast is, but I wish there was a deficit being displayed at all times. Speed, watts, HR is great but show me the gap between them. Makes it much easier to follow.

Again, a small detail but one I think lots of people would have liked to see. Call it an item on my wishlist.

Perspective

This is not a Tri Battle Royale problem. It is a long-distance triathlon problem and one that I keep talking about (I mentioned the same thing in my PTO Championship review).

When you watch Jan and Lionel running, it looks like they are jogging. Just like Gustav Iden looked like he was winning in Daytona. With the two athletes being so far apart it is hard to understand just how fast they are moving. It happens nearly every time Jan races. He looks so comfortable. I mean, they literally had his speed on the screen and I know how fast he is running but I watch him and I think he is going slow.

The problem is, I don’t know how to fix it. Watch an ITU race. They look like they are flying. But they come off the bike in a big pack. So maybe that’s what I want? Closer racing? It doesn’t seem to be an issue in the swim or on the bike. They both looked like they were flying (because they were.)

That’s it, to be honest.

In Conclusion

I think that this race/exhibition/event was a huge positive. I loved so much about it, with some small criticisms. Did I find it edge of my seat viewing? Nup. Did I watch the whole thing? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Very much!

I think the struggle that this event faces is that it is still a long-course triathlon and I don’t think anyone has worked out how to make an 8-hour event exciting the whole time. But that doesn’t mean this is bad. This is a very, very good thing for triathlon. I want to see more of this format of racing or more athletes chasing times or goals. It is one of the main reasons I am excited about Sub7 Sub8. That time just keeps ticking no matter how an athlete is feeling.

I think the Tri Battle Royale has put some pressure onto the Sub7 Sub8 event next year because they did such a good job with it. Just like we have heard the Collins Cup will be this huge thing, we expect Sub7 Sub8 to be big too.

That isn’t a bad thing though, either. Competition is good for the consumer, and seeing one of the greatest triathletes in the world race one of the greatest athletes in the world was a recipe for success. I think they nailed it.

Jan may have won the Battle, but triathlon and its fans are the real winners.

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