Change is here. Saturday marks the debut of the inaugural Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, and by all accounts, a new event, in a new venue, with new distances is being very, very well received.
Absent is the pre-race stress, the uptight, the cards-close-to-vest aspect. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s March and Kona isn’t until October. Maybe it’s the nice, warm temps and the hospitality that this first-year event is putting forth for the 800-plus athletes taking part in Saturday’s long-distance and short distance races. Thursday morning at the hotel restaurant resembled a class reunion as athletes from across the globe re-united after a winter off.
“This is the way for me—to be relaxed,” said Hawaii Ironman third-place finisher Virginia Berasategui of Spain. “I like it that way—things like Lava Java, things like that that help me enjoy the race."Great Britain’s Philip Graves echoed the sentiment: “It’s been grim at home—it was negative 6 (Celcius) when I left for here,” he said. “To get here, it’s the first time we’re all seeing people again. It’s great to come here and hang out.”
Of course, with a $115,000 pro prize purse on the line (including a cool $50,000 going to the mens and womens race winner) we can be sure that demeanor will change Saturday. It’s what drew arguable the finest, deepest pro field outside the Hawaii Ironman to Abu Dhabi. “Baring a few ex and current world champions, it’s the toughest field of the year, no question,” said South African Raynard Tissink.
Certainly, it’s great to see new investors in our sport, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority is to thank. With German Faris Al Sultan as a catalyst (as someone who has spent tons of time training in the area) as well as the success of a recent success of a race that Richard Ussher won here, the tourism authority’s Faisal al Sheikh (above) has taken the sport into an arena that is accustomed to hosting Formula I racing, horse racing and cricket on a much larger scale.
“We’ve always created an initiated diversive, exclusive events in Abu Dhabi, and triathlon is a mass event that can be seen worldwide. We believe in this kind of sport,” said al Sheikh. “We firmly believe that triathlon, set against the backdrop of Abu Dhabi, will be a wonderful platform to showcase our city to the world.”
For Al Sultan’s part, he’s enjoying seeing a world-class collection of athletes on what is, in effect, his second home. “It was 11 years ago when I first came here to train and race,” he said. “It was my dream to have a world-class race in the emirate of Abu Dhabi."
The athletes have been nothing short of impressed.
“It’s certainly a great place to race,” said Team Trek/K-Swiss Aussie Joe Gambles. “I’ve never been to this part of the world, and it’s amazing to see the area, and see all the best athletes here. They’ve done a great job pulling this together as a first-year race.”
What’s the race going to be like? Being the desert we can expect to see lots of sand, and it’s fairly flat on the bike and run. But what we do have that is going to shake things up is a long two-lap 200k bike, preceded by a two-lap, 3k swim, and followed by a short 20k (two-lap) run. This is certainly a cyclist’s race, and it has some licking their chops.
“I’ve been waiting for a race like this my whole career, with a short run—I can’t be more excited,” said bike specialist Bjorn Andersson of Sweden. “Between me and Philip Graves, I think we’ll have a strong group at the front of the bike, and for those of us that aren’t very good runners, we need to build a gap on the bike.”
For starters, the swim will likely be under a light fog layer. This morning, a layer of cool fog blanketed the city. By 9:30 a.m. it had burned off, exposing a fairly harsh sun and temps in the upper 80s F. That should be good news for early starters on the bike, who may take advantage of the cool temps to nail in a solid gap to open the 200k bike.
It’s that long 200k bike, followed by short 20k run, that has everyone suggesting “what-if’s.” What if Phil Graves and Bjorn Andersson strike out to an unassailable lead on the bike and make it a two-man battle to survive the runners over the 20k run? What if the runners like Eneko Llanos is keeping things close? What if the short swim puts poorer swimmers like Yvonne Van Vlerken and Heather Jackson to the front of the bike in front of the likes of Sam McGlone and Julie Dibens? Or what if Tereza Macel’s heat training with TeamTBB in Thailand turns into her ace-in-the-hole?
Yes, there will be one constant: heat. “You won’t have an advantage by riding the course; your advantage comes from training in the heat, and that can be anywhere you can get it.”
Said Tissink: “I expect a lot of walking, and maybe some tears out there.”
Considering that many athletes here are coming out of their winters, one of those guys who did some heat acclimatization was Spaniard Eneko Llanos, and he’ll likely be one of those who aims to stake his claim on the run. The question is, there be enough real estate to reel in any potential runaway riders?
“It’s great to have a race this big, this early in the season,” Llanos said. “It’s a new format for everyone, and for me, I don’t know what to expect. There’s a lot of strong cyclists and maybe the run is not long enough. But it won’t change my race. I’ll ride my pace, stay as close as I can to them.”
Who’s gonna win? Check in tomorrow for a look at why all the oddsmakers with the various online publications are wrong, and every one should be “PK” (Well, that’s my bet anyway.)
Scot Fraser Cartmell of the Trek/K-Swiss Tri Team does some late checks over his Trek TTX on Thursday.
The swim venue for Saturday's race has been foggy and cool in the morning, as athletes test the waters at the foot of the opulent Emirates Palace (in right background).
Great Britain's Leanda Cave prepares for a Thursday dip at the Emirates Palace Hotel beach.