The ITU World Series got underway in the Emirates’ capital this weekend, with success for Mario Mola and Katie Zafares in the individual races and Australia in the mixed relay. But beyond the headlines, what else did we learn from the elite level racing? 220 columnist Tim Heming reflects.
1. Super League Triathlon has upped the ante. Compared to the fast-paced, multi-transition, mixed-up world that Chris McCormack and co have delivered, the World Series – even at sprint distance – looks pedestrian. It’s particularly a problem on the bike, where triathletes such as Flora Duffy and Alistair Brownlee, who can really blow racing apart, are sorely missed. The men’s race in Abu Dhabi was effectively neutralised until T2, and if new fans are to be engaged, that must change.
2. Abu Dhabi’s state-of-the-art Yas Marina motor-racing circuit fails to convince. Yes, it’s a fillip that ITU now has an established venue for the World Series curtain-raiser and the warm climate is no doubt welcomed by the triathletes. But the eerie, empty grandstands draw obvious if unfair comparisons with the fervour of when Formula One lands here in December, and the wide, sweeping track also doesn’t make for exciting cycle racing – until the bike tyres hit a patch of motor oil.
3. Transition practice under pressure pays off. This shouldn’t turn into an ode to Super League, but the new race series could also claim credit for improving triathletes’ competency in triathlon’s ‘fourth discipline’. Although the men’s individual race arrived at T1 in a large pack, it was Vincent Luis, Ben Kanute and Henri Schoeman – all fresh from Super League in Singapore – who emerged first to form an early three-man break on the bike.
4. Mario Mola cements the favourite tag. While Luis, Schoeman and Kristian Blummenfelt were putting on a show at Super League over the past few months, the genial Spaniard was getting stuck into winter training. Arriving fresh in Abu Dhabi, he showed he will again be the man to beat as he looks for a fourth successive world title, which would be an unprecedented feat in short-course racing.
5. Alex Yee can win a World Series race in 2019. If the 21-year-old’s performance to win a World Cup race in Cape Town last month was a breakthrough, then finishing runner-up in on his World Series debut was another level again. While British Triathlon will not want to rush Yee’s development, there’s little reason he cannot claim a win on the series in 2019 if he stays fit and healthy. A lack of challenging bike courses that could otherwise break up the race and leave him isolated before the run, also plays to Yee’s advantage.
6. Olympic gold is anyone’s right now. Although wins for Katie Zafares and Mola in Abu Dhabi will surprise no-one, looking ahead to Tokyo 2020, it appears as wide-open as it ever has in a pre-Olympic year. Both Zafares and Mola have earned their No 1 status through consistency more than triumphing on the big one-off occasion, and there are other established performers, up-and-coming talent, and big names currently on the sidelines such as Flora Duffy, Nicola Spirig and even Alistair Brownlee, who could all have a case made for them.
7. Consistency working for Non Stanford. The Welsh triathlete has been blighted by injury since winning the world title in 2013, but a move to Canadian Joel Filliol’s training group, where consistency has largely replaced intensity, looks to have put her in good stead for a solid season. Although unable to make the front pack on the bike, Stanford was quicker than France’s Cassandre Beaugrand – arguably the fastest runner in the sport – over the last 5km to make the top five.
8. The Americans just keep coming. Just when you might have thought they couldn’t become any stronger, the USA’s impressive roster of senior talent now includes the fast-blossoming Taylor Knibb. The 21-year-old has won successive junior and U23 world titles and finished fourth in Abu Dhabi, yet still looks far from the finished article. She’s already one of the strongest bikers in the field – in last year’s U23 Championship in Gold Coast she was 2:30mins quicker on two wheels than the rest of the field. Some serious pedal power.
9. Jessica Learmonth’s strength could be Britain’s undoing. Learmonth once again showed that she’s the fastest female swimmer in ITU racing, but the knock-on effect is that her British team-mates become relegated to also-rans. The Leeds’ triathlete’s pace upfront had the biggest impact on Stanford, Vicky Holland and Georgia Taylor-Brown not being able to make the front pack in Abu Dhabi. While it’s not a pressing issue because the women race as individuals on the World Series, when it comes to Olympic selection, it could make for some tricky decisions for selectors.
10. The Aussies, Americans and French are mixed relay aces. While New Zealand snuck into third place in the final reckoning, it was only because world champions France were served a penalty on the final leg. That’s racing, of course, but it also didn’t mask that Australia, USA and France are currently head and shoulders above the other nations when it comes to the format. Britain were without the Brownlees, granted, but whether Team GB’s undoubted experience can match the specificity and youthful endeavour of the top three looks increasingly questionable.