2014 Hawaii World Championships. Photo: Triamax
For the long-term viability of the women’s sport something has got to change. Soon.
Unlike what many may think, I actually take no joy in criticising the WTC and would prefer to be working with them for the benefit of the sport rather than be harping from the sidelines.
Criticism of Ironman puts my athletes in a tough spot, and as a coach it means the message can too easily be dismissed as bias.
But on some issues, coverage by mainstream triathlon media is either so deficient or understanding of the of the sport so limited that it needs to be set straight.
So for now, please ignore the fact that I coach Daniela Ryf, last week’s winner and presumptive favourite for this year’s Kona.
The 2015 European Championships at Ironman Frankfurt were an unacceptable farce. Totally unacceptable. The congested start times denying the women any chance at all for a fair race.
Frankfurt follows a complete farce at Ironman 70.3 Cairns where the female leaders were again penalised for catching up to the men, and will be followed by another farce at Ironman Zurich in a couple of weeks.
The Angry Bird being impeded on the bike.
Here we see the Angry Bird putting the hammer down passing a pro male (and nearly giving him a cold in the process). This is the bird in her groove and looking to go to work. But is she able to keep her rhythm as she looks to put time into the other women? Of course not. She runs into another pro male, then another, then another, the entire race. I encourage all serious observers of the sport to re-watch the women’s bike in its entirety to get a sense of the problem.
When you have Ironman’s own commentators explaining how the leading women are having to ‘sit up and light pedal’ to avoid penalties after catching the men, surely it must be obvious to all stakeholders that we need to work together to sort this out.
Caroline Steffen being checked by male pros on the bike.
Nor am I complaining because my athletes are the only ones affected by the race situation. All the strong swim / bike women are. Here we see Xena (Caroline Steffen) being similarly stuffed around on the bike when she should be using her weapons to put time into the speedy runners being dragged up in a peloton of fast age group men.
Before people say, ‘yes, it’s bad. But it affects all the women equally’. No, it does not.
The leaders are coming into male riders who are slowing them down. The chasing women are being caught by fast age group males who are speeding them up. And while the general triathlon public may not understand it, all the top women do.
Here is Caroline’s reaction after IM 70.3 Cairns a few weeks ago:
“It’s just not ok, it’s not ok. How many times do we have to say it? We as females need a fair race. We need a separate race. We caught a male in the swim already and they mix up our race in the first five minutes. It is not ok.”
Annabel Luxford also weighing in:
“That’s actually the first drafting penalty of my career, I’ve been doing triathlon for quite some time. I guess we are seeing it quite regularly and it’s a shame it’s happening too much. I pretty much rode that entire bike on my own and got caught up with an age group man that came past in a narrow section they called me out for not dropping back quick enough.”
Before the race Michelle Vesterby tweeted this:
After the race the fifth place finisher tweeted this:
I’m not sure that any of the above athletes have received an apology or an assurance that it won’t happen again.
‘Your athlete won so why do you care?’
I have been campaigning on this even since the days of Chrissie winning, because the situation we see today has been so easily foreseeable.
I now have to instruct my strong swim / bikers NOT to push on the bike because there is no advantage over others sitting in and running with fresh legs. Julia Gajer in her post race interview said she felt Daniela was just warming up the first 90km. 100% true. Because there is no other choice.
Coaching wise I now have to change my focus towards a run approach. I can do that, but don’t feel I should have to in the first place. Some athletes like Daniela are good enough to be able to adapt and win on the run. But not everyone is.
Last year at Ironman Zurich I saw one of our developing long distance athletes and uber swim / biker Celine Schaerer ridden down by a pack of riders. Some of whom I know (because I see them on a day to day basis) could not get within 10 minutes of her on a fair ride. I subsequently had to advise her to stick to ITU racing, because at least there you have the safety net of the federation funding.
Is that a good situation for Ironman and developing athletes?
No. The start times need to be addressed for the future of the sport.
We do not have a fair Women’s World Championship at Kona.
Yet the mainstream tri media are either too scared, too much in awe, too ignorant, or too apathetic to come out and say it.
Let me preface my comments below by saying it is absolutely not the fault of the slower swim athletes that the race infrastructure gives them an unfair advantage. Neither are they in a position to stop the motorbikes accompanying fan favourites through the field and providing a massive advantage along the way.
For all the attention and coverage of Kona last year I did not see one commentator or article accounting for the anomaly of how Daniela Ryf was able put so much time into Rinnie (Mirinda Carfrae) during the first 90km on the bike (from memory 9+ minutes), but so little for the remainder.
The extent of the analysis being ‘Daniela must have got slower.’
Yet have any of the Angry Bird’s undefeated string of five victories since suggested that she gets slower on the bike?
No, the fact is there is a problem there, which WTC have conceded by pushing the age group start times this year a further five minutes back. A step in the right direction and one they should be applauded for making.
But it is the close start times between the pro men and pro women that are also a huge problem. It has already cost Caroline Steffen a World Championship at Kona. I guarantee you if it is not changed soon it is going to cost more.
I am asked regularly now about how the nature of women’s Ironman racing will change when Olympic medallists Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden (and no doubt more) start going long. The honest answer is that I don’t know. I do know under current rules it will get messier and uglier.
The Tri Equal movement should be supported. But it should also not be up to them or grisly old coaches to point this out to the tri world. It’s time for a transparent dialogue between WTC and the triathlon public about why or why not the women can’t have their own race or fair start times. We appreciate there are difficulties logistically, but don’t tell me they are insurmountable.
If the pro women continue to be ignored and told ‘there is no problem’, then athletes should start taking matters into their own hands, first off by refusing to compete at IM Frankfurt if this is not resolved or at least improved next year. No-one wants it to happen, but that’s a conversation that should be happening for the long term credibility of the sport.