I should have had this done earlier, but shit happens.
Three weeks ago I was one of seven pros invited to compete in the Beijing International Triathlon. It was to be my third race in a row after HyVee & Mont Tremblant. While athletes are perennially re-writing the rule books on exactly how many races can be seamlessly backed up week after week (looking at you Javier), I'd never attempted such a busy three week racing block with so many time changes in between. I knew it would be hard to race for the third week in a row, but the positive was that I was carrying a lot of fitness from my build into World Champs. With a couple days off training traveling from Mont Tremblant to Beijing, I also knew I would be somewhat fresh (apart from the dirty long haul travel clothes).
Some background on the Beijing International Tri
- 2014 was the third year running
- invite only professional field, open entry Age Group race
- sister event to Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon (both IMG races)
- features a refreshing 100k prize purse
- course very similar to Escape from Alcatraz, minus the sand and swell
- serves as a qualifying race for Escape From Alcatraz the following year
It's obviously an exclusive event to be part of as a pro. The first year it was announced, I had already booked and paid for my flights to Beijing before I found out I wasn't invited, a costly mistake. This year I was very excited to get the official nod and invitation to race. Joining me in the Men's pro race was evergreen Javier Gomez, Greg Bennett, Mario Mola, Graham O'Grady, Matt Reed and Brian Fleischmann.
I drew this race into comparison with Mont Tremblant for one reason, to show myself that I am better than the athlete that placed 28th in the 70.3 World Champs the week before Beijing. Race dynamics and often the final result are directly affected by number and quality of the athletes on the the start line, and the individual strengths of each of these athletes. In my case, the fewer on the startline means I have a better chance of a result. Obviously this is the case with anything to do with odds, but I'm saying this is a sense that with fewer athletes in a triathlon, the more it becomes and overall swim, bike and run test, not just a test of ones ability to sit in a pack on the swim & bike. While my running is no where near the standard of many other athletes, I believe I am one of the better overall triathletes, and I feel my 2nd place result in Beijing validates that fact. Now, off from the soapbox...here's what happened
The day started with a simple layout for the swim course. There was a bit of breeze about. I always welcome as much chop on the water as possible, and this played into the hands of Javier and I being the strongest swimmers in the field. I knew it was always going to be him & I swimming up front, but who would lead was something I was unsure of. That always gets sorted out in the first few hundred metres. After the gun and after some frantic strokes, I looked around to see Javier and I clear of the field but at a deadlock. A few more hundred metres went by with neither of us giving an inch, so I decided to drop back to save the gas. The gap was growing and so was the grin on my face. The race was on.
Javi was always going to be near impossible to beat in the race, but I knew I was a chance of 2nd if I could hold Greg Bennett off on the bike to have a buffer into the run, and Mario Mola on the final few KM's of the run when he would possibly fly through the field. The other guys were all fit, but Greg & Mario were the biggest threats obviously after Javi. 2nd place was my realistic goal, and having a good gap out of the swim on these athletes was the best possible start in reaching this goal.
After the swim exit, we had a nice and comfortable 800m run to T1, replicating the run out of the bay in Alcatraz. Surprisingly, Javi let me lead, probably with the goal in mind of staying behind me the whole of the 40km ride. I was cool with this, as long as we were putting time into the others. I felt great from the start of the ride, which was a really fun course over perfect asphalt the entire way. The great folk of IMG & Fengtai/Beijing had crafted immaculate roads, even some one way sections specifically for the triathlon. We were met by significant climbs and false flats almost the entire way.
After putting pressure on Javi through the first half dozen u-turns, I was able to break clear and continue my goal of riding time into Greg & Mario. I felt great up the climbs and my descending was sharp. While the lead car was always about 400m up the road, I was able to catch it on the first technical descent and had to coast behind with the brakes almost locked. I was nervous at this point, not wanting Javi to catch me. A car or motorbike is never going to be able to descend faster than a motivated cyclist, and moments like these are always the longest seconds of the race. Eventually we reached the bottom of the descent and it was business as usual heading out to the turn-around, the first opportunity to gauge time and place.
I had a good amount of time on Javi and Greg was just behind. I was happy with the gap, and happier with my effort. I can always push harder when I'm comfortable and not agitated. There was no opportunity to see placing of time the rest of the 40km, so I did my best to stay smooth and powerful whilst best predicting the movement of the wild village dogs. The course was lined by villagers most of the way which was really special, many of whom are probably only seeing triathlon for the first time.
In the interest of comparing races, I found that I put more effort in the ride at Worlds than I did in Beijing, and was easily able to drop Javi early into the ride in Beijing whereas he held on until very late into the ride at Mont Tremblant. There's many variable at play here, but one that's at the top of the pile was there was simply more athletes around him on the bike in Mont Tremblant. Sure you can say he was more motivated at Worlds than Beijing to hold wheels, but I think it's a fair call to say riding with 8 other guys around you is much easier than 1. Of further note is the fact that every Olympic Distance race the last few years, Greg Bennett has caught me by at least 15km into the ride, even after a similar swim deficit of 1 minute. On this day he only rode 3 seconds faster than me. It's easy to say that when there's less athletes, there's less legal & illegal drafting, and less tactics; it's more of a pure time trial. In no way am I saying here that Greg drafts. Greg's a great cyclist and is a fair racer. It's just that it's much easier and faster to ride within the rules with athletes around oneself than without, especially with the stagger rule in the US. As a faster swimmer with less company, I'm always more disadvantaged than Greg, unless he has a smaller amount of athletes around him as was the case in this race.
So with all this aside, I got into T2 with 1 minute on Greg and 1:10 on Javi.
I was on the run and feeling good. I'm always a much better runner off the bike when the ride is a steady effort. Javi was running fast, but I knew the other boys would have a hard time catching me if I kept myself together. There's a section on this run course with 606 stairs, up and down, with a lot more climbing and downhills in between. We basically run up stairs, around a monolithic pagoda, then back down. Absolutely stunning part of the course, but simply the most sustained pain I've ever endured, no exceptions. Ignore that elevation chart above, that's wrong. You know it's a slow course when Javi only runs a 34:31. He caught me just before the beginning of the stairs at the 4km mark. Funnily enough he attacked me, saying after the race that he can never be too sure about winning after racing the Brownlees so many times. I watched him bound up two stairs at a time. Comparatively, I was walking after about a dozen. The fear of Benno catching me kept me moving however, and after shaking off some near cramps I made it safely at the bottom with only 4km to go. This was an all-out dash to the line, with Javi in the distance giving me some comfort I was still going well. The final part of the course was crazy technical and fun. I almost forgot about the battle behind weaving in and out of the paths and trees with a drone following overhead, but I eventually made it to the line, just 79 seconds shy of Javi, and 37 seconds clear of Greg. I was overjoyed.
While the talent in the race was enormous, the field was small. At the end of the day the race was a pure time trial, unlike Mont Tremblant the week before. This comparison trumps all. To me, this is the pure essence of non-drafting triathlon, how an athlete fares against the clock, against others, when all tactics are removed. Javi is the best, and Greg has had one of the best and most consistent careers in the history of the sport. It was an honor to share the podium with these two.
The Beijing International was a fantastic event. The water was clean, the air quality was good, and the course was amazing. It allowed a pure race, and best of all, everyone had a smile at the finish, feeling as if they had achieved no matter the result. It was also a pleasure to see the enthusiasm for triathlon from the Chinese. It's a sport that seems to be on the fringes of popularity in this country, and there was an incredible amount of enthusiasm for the professional athletes. I hope to return to Fengtai every year, and if you're interested in racing, keep an eye out for a 2015 date in the coming months on http://www.beijinginternationaltriathlon.com/