Sutto Squad enjoying Alpe d’Huez (Sylvain, Luke, Marc, Ben and Chippy). Photo Credit: 220 Magazine
Every athlete asks me at some stage should I do the Ironman races or Challenge? What about the newer ones such as Outlaw, the older independent races, or the ITU series races that have both short and long races. Coach what’s your favourite?
This blog is for the real Triathlon tragics. It’s not for mass appeal, but for those who want a window of what Triathlon used to be. Just join me for 5 minutes and I’ll tell you a true story of the greatest race series the world has known, but that few know of now.
Last weekend family circumstances had me traveling back to Dijon France. This region of Burgundy was a big deal for not just France but the whole of Europe in the ‘Middle Ages’ period of history. It also played a major role in the European start of Trisutto back in 1992, a long time before anyone thought about Triathlon being in the Olympics.
From our Australian squad we had sent Shane Johnson as a scout to the French race scene. He had joined a club he was invited to race for and then sent back all the information he could regarding the practicality of our full squad following the next year.
Shane’s reconnaissance seemed completely surreal to us, his excitement and stories of races and prize money just didn’t seem possible.
To sum up his words in a sentence: “Coach, I’ve found the promised land. 4 races every weekend, with great prize money, and at least 2 mid week races with money during the August holiday month!”
We went about, putting our own club races on in Australia to raise money to fund our squad members to get their shot at the promised land. No money, no French language, but a huge hope that we could indeed make a living with Triathlon in France.
Our first bit of luck was we were introduced to a French athlete and his brother Sylvain Dafflon, and his brother Herve. In 30 years I have yet to find a Frenchman with a more Australian attitude to life.Sylvain organised our group to join his club in Macon, which is just south of the Burgundy region. This is where we make the first part of the greatest series start. The club provided us with two apartments to house 8 athletes, and paid for all athlete French licenses.
Our Shane Johnson group did the same with two clubs in a different region. Each club housed and provided race suits and bikes if needed for our guys.
Dylan brought out the race schedule for all of France. It was like nothing we had ever seen. 400 races all broken down into races with stars next to them. All with prizemoney. This took place in a 7 months season. 1 star race had 1000, 750 and 500 Francs in prize money. This was almost 30 years ago with no Olympics on the horizon. Five star races had more money, and paid deeper that we could even imagine.
We decided that we would concentrate with the slower athletes on the Burgundy region, while our best two men and women would travel French wide and take on the best. The next point that amazed us, was Sylvain said ‘you pick the races and who is going and I’ll contact and make arrangements’. We thought this is about getting free entry? No, every race even the one star offered us hotel for 3 nights, food during the trip, and an allowance for travel – unless we wanted to travel by train. That was one reason we selected Macon as we could get to anywhere in France by TGV, and the club provided the tickets!
As we travelled across France recently I started pointing out races that our athletes had won. After 30 minutes I was told, ‘these little towns could not have all had triathlons with money? Some of these towns are too small?’
Indeed they did! In fact, we planned out our attack on this area pouring over the map like Napoleon before a battle. Each athlete was designated races according to their ability and riding strengths. Every race had prize money and some larger than today 26 years later. Dijon had a great half iron distance, then we had our local races Macon, Le Chaplin, Chalon-sur-Saone which I remember well because Sylvain was shocked when we turned up with juniors Ben Bright, his mate Lach Vollmerhaus and Marc Allen.
Ignoring the advice that ‘they will get killed racing pro, stick to the small local races, it might help their chances‘; Ben just destroyed the field. Out of the water minutes in front and then put two more into them on the bike. Sylvain was in the race, and he never again worried about our feeding ourselves, more about don’t send these boys to my races! We were away, Auxerre, Dole, Troyes, Besançon, Epinal, Pontarliar, Baule-Escoublac, St. Louis, Nevers, Vesoul. All had money races, all in this one region and we won them all – it was the Aussie invasion.
Mulhouse where the great Craig Alexander spent a season honing his skills then on to the bigger ones in the area. Belfort Half Ironman where the great Hamish Carter during his time in the squad just destroyed the best in the land, and I still remember the bike ride from the future Olympic champ. And we will apologize to the other races in the area that I’ve forgot to mention that were equal to any race in the world. Still going strong is Gerardmer triathlon, a fantastic Triathlon test of skill over half distance, has 6,000 triathletes racing over a week.
This is one region in France only. So is this why I think it’s the best ? No not really. Let me finish by explaining a French race at every level, from our experience. During our first race, we were all very excited, but with no language skills it was difficult. We were told the race starts at 3pm ‘just like football’. Sleep in we were told. Now in Australia, a late race at that time was 8am start. We couldn’t believe it. How do we prepare for a 3pm start? How do we eat? All was new to us.
So on race day about 8:30am, one of the athletes come charging up to me after he had been out for a jog shouting “We have missed it. The race is on now!” I tore out and down to the race sure enough there were athletes everywhere. Finding the race director, he assured me, no no no, 3pm is the pro start. This is the clubs race, the age group race, and the kids race. So be here at 2pm to set up in transition. He answered “if you want lunch come down early between mid day and join us all.“
So, I wandered down early, and this is what I saw! A field completely covered with picnic blankets baskets, and food everywhere. Families having baguettes, cheese and wine. All the French Pros were mixing with the fans. I thought great for us, but the director said, they will all stay for the pro race, and they love to mix with the pros. Before the main race, bring your guys down. They don’t have to eat but it creates an atmosphere for the town.
We raced in towns of 200 and on race day there were 1000 for the picnic. It was surreal, and every race we went to at the provincial level this was a tradition, not a one off, I will point out. Viva la France!
Before the onset of the political power, and joining the Olympics, the French racing circuit, from kids race to ironman races was the greatest race series in the sport.
I’m equally sure that some of our long surviving triathletes, the veterans of 30 years, will confirm how in their part of the world, there was a vibrant Triathlon racing community that provided a great diversity of Triathlon experiences in their area. It could be well argued, that only a few professional athletes yet many administrative personnel have benefited in ITU racing, and that the proliferation of Triathlon would have grown just as much as it has under the Olympic Rings. As in France there were also many half iron and iron distance races. In France today, if we take out Ironman Nice, the major long races are all thriving. Still there after 25 years without an IM brand or Challenge sticker. All still provide a better race experience, and spectator experience.
We finish the observation that when one asks, what happened to Nice? It went from the greatest true test of the complete Multisport athlete with a unique experience, to just another Ironman. If that’s progress you can have it.